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We can’t stop the rain, but we can build smarter

It’s troubling to see images of American families assessing the soggy aftermath of a flood that’s just ravaged a city.

After the initial clean-up is complete and the floodwaters have receded, we’re left with a hard truth: sea-level rise and changes in precipitation patterns fueled by climate change, combined with population growth and natural changes along the coast, have contributed to the increased frequency and severity of floods. 

{mosads}More floods mean more losses. These losses can be devastating to communities, as schools, hospitals, roads and water plants are damaged, taking critical services away just when people need them. The costs, both for property owners and for taxpayers as a whole, can be immense. We can’t stop the rains or the floods, but we can build smarter. 

Adjusted for inflation, losses due to tropical storms and other flood events have tripled in real dollars over the past 50 years. Flood-related costs currently comprise approximately half of all natural disaster losses. A big part of the change is the result of population growth in coastal areas.  The situation has only become worse as sea levels rise along our coastline, largely a result of climate change.   

That’s why the two of us — one an environmentalist who largely supports the Obama administration’s environmental policies, the other a conservative activist who mostly opposes them — are both pleased that President Obama recently signed an executive order to protect Americans from the rising costs of floods.  

Under the executive order, the administration is enacting new standards to ensure government-funded projects like bridges, roads, schools, water treatment systems and other critical infrastructure are built safer, stronger and more resilient. The executive order doesn’t tell private individuals what to do with their own property. Local governments also remain free to spend their own money as they choose. But the new rules make clear that federal taxpayers won’t subsidize foolish development that damages the environment. It’s a policy on which both liberals and conservatives should be able to agree. 

It’s also long overdue. For four decades, the federal government’s safety benchmark was to elevate to the standards of a theoretical 100-year flood. But experience shows us that yesterday’s 100-year flood elevation may not protect us from tomorrow’s storms.  Our coastlines are shifting, both in response to natural changes, like land subsidence and erosion, and changes from human activity like greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to rising seas. New flood maps do a better job of telling us which areas are most vulnerable to flooding, but continued sea-level rise and the dynamic nature of coastlines mean we’ll have to continually update and improve our understanding of flood risk.  

The problem isn’t limited just to our coasts. One study found the 100-year flood stage calculated for Hannibal, Mo. – Mark Twain’s hometown on the Mississippi River – should more realistically be a 10-year flood stage. Researchers at the University of Iowa recently published a study that found floods are occurring with increased frequency across the Midwest. That’s why it’s so important to adopt improved flood protections now. 

The new standards give federal agencies flexibility to choose among three commonsense benchmarks that best fit local projects scheduled to receive federal funds. Projects can be built to the 100-year flood elevation plus at least two feet; the 500-year flood elevation; or the elevation to which floodwaters impacted by climate change could rise over a project’s expected lifetime. 

This is similar to what some states already do. Five states – Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, Maryland and Montana – already have minimum flood protection standards similar to the new federal standards. More than 230 local jurisdictions also have already adopted standards for all new commercial and residential construction — not just critical infrastructure – more protective than the 100-year flood elevation. 

Building projects to higher standards does not always mean higher costs. While initial construction costs may increase, the long-term costs of repairing or rebuilding after a flood may be avoided. When floods ravage America’s towns and cities, we feel for communities mourning mass inundation of homes, family businesses, schools and neighborhoods.

The new standards will make all communities safer and more secure. They’ll help Americans adapt to climate change and save tax dollars. They deserve enthusiastic support from those of all political stripes.

Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group with 1.4 million members and online activists. Lehrer is the president of the R Street Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy research organization whose mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government.


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