Policy changes needed at every level to survive the next storm
Rainfall amounts from Harvey were huge, but not unprecedented. Texas previously held the continental U.S. record for a rainfall when Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 dumped 48 inches of rain. In terms of property damage and economic loss, Harvey may end up surpassing Katrina, but we will see other floods like it in the future.
Denial of the true significance of flood risk is something I have seen time and again over my career, and I get very concerned when I hear elected and other officials make claims that this was something like we have never seen before. Statements like that early in the recovery sow seeds of complacency to do nothing but rebuild in the same place, in the same way as quickly as possible.
There is a better path to a stronger and more resilient recovery using tried and true techniques, but it will require bold leadership and at every level of government.
There are several ways to ensure we rebuild smarter and stronger at the local and regional level:
- Strengthen local floodplain management ordinances. Recent storms show that protecting to the 100-year level standard is inadequate. Given the threat of sea level rise and subsidence, flood protection levels of 3-4 feet above the 100-year flood are reasonable.
Nashville, Tennessee builds 4 feet above the 100-year elevation for all buildings. Every community in the region should have a standard for critical facilities (nursing homes, chemical storage facilities, hospitals, police and fire stations) — 1 foot above the 500-year flood level is an excellent standard adopted by Houston, and one the Texas Medical Center heeded after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. After a nearly $2 billion loss, center leaders used several approaches including higher building standards, floodproofing, flood control and holistic stormwater management. The result? During Harvey the facilities were operational and it appears damage was minimal.
- Implement zoning to limit uses not compatible with high-risk flood hazard areas. A good example where zoning might have made an impact is the vicinity of the more than 100 subdivisions evacuated when the emergency spillways of Addicks and Barker reservoirs were opened.
- Support and prioritize local flood mitigation programs that acquire flood properties and return land to open space such as Harris County Flood Control District’s Voluntary Home Buyout Begun in 1985, the program has acquired over 3,000 properties and more than 1,000 acres of land was restored to their natural function as floodplains. Given that Houston and Harris County have one of the nation’s highest concentrations of properties with repetitive flood insurance claims, the HCFCD’s buyout program needs to be enhanced and expanded and other communities in the region should prioritize buyouts in deep floodplains and where repetitive loss properties occur.
The state can also act to mitigate the impact of future floods.
- Enact a mandatory, statewide building code. The most recent model building codes have several standards that exceed National Flood Insurance Program minimums.
- Provide authority for all Texas jurisdictions to adopt and enforce effective land use, zoning, building and floodplain management codes. While Texas is known as a home rule state, only limited authorities have been given to smaller jurisdictions and counties.
- Establish a set of statewide flood risk reduction standards that exceed NFIP minimum standards to include higher flood protection elevation than the 100-year flood, minimum standards for critical facilities, and flood mapping standards that lowers the allowable rise in flood elevations due to encroachment when setting floodway boundaries. Our research at Association of State Floodplain Managers identified 20 states that have a higher statewide flood protection elevations ranging from 1 to 3 feet.
- Adopt a state law that requires the identification of dam failure/operation zones, make the maps publically available and require developers to account for and mitigate increased risks and dam hazard classification increases due to downstream development. Wisconsin, Virginia and earlier this year, North Dakota, have all adopted state laws addressing these issues.
Additionally, there are also federal actions that can improve the outcome of the next major flood.
- Require a Harvey rebuilding standard for use of any federal disaster funding similar to what was done after Hurricane Sandy. This standard could include a flood resiliency level of 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation for all projects except those critical facilities, which should be 3 feet above the 100-year level or 500-year level (or more if the local standard is higher). This ensures American taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and reduces the likelihood of paying for future disaster assistance.
- As part of the NFIP reauthorization, include urban flooding as a type of flood hazard that must be mapped under the NFIP, stronger approaches to deal with repetitive loss properties, and a national flood risk disclosure requirement for property sellers and landlords.
- Provide expedited funding to complete the job of mapping all of the types of flood hazards required under the NFIP for southeast Texas and the rest of the nation. Develop advisory base flood elevations where necessary to reflect where old elevations are not adequate to guide rebuilding and redevelopment.
- Forgive the debt in the NFIP to ensure the continued solvency of the program and capacity to pay Harvey claims. All of the debt in the program today can be traced back to the hurricanes of 2004-2005 including Katrina. Had Congress promptly forgiven the debt in a timely manner after Katrina, there would be no debt today.
Rebuilding exactly as it was before, even in the face of an extreme event, should not be an option. Let’s face it, damage is going to happen from events as large as Harvey, but options exist at all government levels to have a meaningful reduction in economic loss and human impact, even from these extreme events in the future. Preventing all damage isn’t the goal. I’d estimate the Texas Medical Center’s mitigation approach and HCFCD’s buyout program have resulted in about $3 billion in losses avoided from Harvey alone. And these actions add up. Flood risk reduction is the real goal and it is achievable.
Chad Berginnis, CFM, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, had previously been a local and state floodplain manager and community planner with nearly 25 years of experience working in flood disasters.