Harvey and Irma’s lasting lesson — America needs stronger flood policies

 Harvey and Irma’s lasting lesson — America needs stronger flood policies
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Superlatives can only begin to capture the severity of this hurricane season. Hurricane Irma churned for days as one the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. It drenched states in the Southeast after leaving a trail of destruction across the Caribbean and Florida.

This latest catastrophe comes only two weeks after Hurricane Harvey redefined flooding disasters in the United States. In the course of six days, the hurricane-turned-tropical storm made landfall three times, unleashing more than 9 trillion gallons of water and dumping more than an average year’s worth of rainfall in some places — leaving underwater as much as 30 percent of Harris County, home to Houston, our nation’s fourth largest city, and some 4.5 million people.

The storm left at least 70 people dead and thousands homeless, and caused billions of dollars in damages across a huge swath of southeastern Texas. Recovery will take years.


Despite the unprecedented scale of this disaster, we fear that those who are calling Harvey a once-in-a-generation event are wrong. In fact, Harvey is now the fourth major flood event to devastate Texas communities in the past two years. Even if this ferocious and tragic hurricane season turns out to be an anomaly, science tells us that flooding is becoming more common and severe, meaning that Harvey and Irma will likely be harbingers of disasters to come.

As the nation focuses its attention on the tragic consequences of these monster storms, it’s time for policymakers to support smarter policies to help individuals and communities protect themselves from flooding.

From 1980 to 2013, the United States suffered more than $260 billion in damages from flood-related disasters, making it the costliest and most common disaster threat in the nation — in fact, 90 percent of all natural disasters in the U.S. involve flooding.

Today, more than 123 million people — almost 40 percent of the U.S. population — live in coastal counties that are highly developed, often with infrastructure constructed to outdated building codes. In many cases, people buy property without knowing what the sellers know: that the land is prone to flooding. In other cases, home and business owners repair or rebuild flood-ravaged properties without doing anything to mitigate their risks from the next flood.

So how should we adapt to respond to this threat?

First, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE, Congress, and our other leaders must acknowledge that building public infrastructure to older standards is no longer sustainable. Just days before Harvey struck, the Trump administration took a step backward by rescinding a national flood standard.

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina Majority of voters say Trump should not nominate a Supreme Court justice: poll MORE’s executive order — the result of a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force recommendation — required that federal infrastructure located in floodplains be built to higher flood standards and that designers and builders consider the best available science to account for flood risk. Supported by conservatives and conservationists alike, it was the most significant action taken in a generation to prepare communities for the reality of more frequent and severe flooding.

The administration should now reinstate the measure so we don’t leave communities — like those in Texas — and their infrastructure highly exposed to flood risk and costly repair bills.


Second, policymakers must understand that taking action to mitigate flood risk saves more than lives and property; it saves taxpayers money too. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, mitigation projects already save more than $1 billion in prevented damages each year, with every dollar spent on mitigating natural disasters saving $4 in costs borne by society later on.

Those facts should motivate Congress to make meaningful updates to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP, which provides federally backed coverage for more than 22,000 communities nationwide, is $25 billion in debt, in large part due to two factors: a mere fraction of NFIP-insured properties — many of which flood, and are rebuilt, repeatedly — account for over 25 percent of the claims the program pays out; and roughly 20 percent of policyholders receive below-risk rates. Last week, Congress gave the flood program a three month lifeline to allow it to process and payout new claims.

That time should not be wasted. Members have until Dec. 8 find common ground on much needed reforms. Requiring disclosure of property flood history, transparency of the rates charged to policyholders, and restrictions on the growth of repeatedly flooded properties are three essential measures to reduce harm in future storms and put the program on sound fiscal footing.

Smart flood mitigation policy enjoys broad backing from the American public. A recent poll shows that almost three-quarters of registered voters — across party lines — support action that would enable communities to better prepare for and respond to floods.

In fact, 81 percent of voters favor a single national standard requiring authorities to disclose property flood risk, and 82 percent support a requirement that all federally funded infrastructure in flood-prone areas be constructed to better withstand the impacts of flooding. Science and public opinion clearly have converged on this issue, and policymakers would be wise to capitalize on a rare area of bipartisan agreement to make our nation safer.

With the long and difficult recovery underway in Texas and Louisiana, and soon to begin in Florida, policymakers must work to chart a smarter path forward. The status quo is no longer viable. It’s time to break the cycle of repeated flooding and rebuilding in flood-prone areas, improve public safety, and reduce the burden that flooding places on taxpayers. With the next Harvey looming, our leaders owe it to the American people to act now.

Craig Fugate was administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2009 to 2016. Laura Lightbody directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.