The US has a significant flooding problem — Congress can help
As Congress works to craft comprehensive infrastructure legislation, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to address a major issue that affects every state in the country and costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year: flooding.
Flood-related events are the most common and costly natural disaster in the U.S., causing more than $900 billion in damage and losses since 2000. The problem and the costs have worsened over recent decades, with increasing impacts from destructive hurricanes, riverine flooding and growing frequency of localized heavy rains that inundate communities from coast to coast.
There’s a lot Congress can do to help reduce the impacts and costs of flooding, both within the context of legislative infrastructure packages and in stand-alone measures. Lawmakers can start by taking a cue from states that are leading on this issue. Under New Jersey’s Climate Change Resilience Strategy, for example, state officials looking to mitigate flooding related to climate change have identified various approaches — including protecting marsh habitat, which would absorb water from sea level rise and storm surges. Full implementation of the state’s resilience strategy would likely spare communities from future flood damage and save taxpayers from costly response and recovery efforts.
In South Carolina last September, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signed the Disaster Relief and Resilience Act, which, among other things, created an Office of Resilience and a program to help local governments purchase repeatedly flooded homes from willing property owners — such as those in Horry County that has experienced multiple floods in recent years — so they can relocate out of harm’s way. The properties would then be converted into green spaces, restoring the floodplain’s ability to absorb excess waters.
Rhode Island released its “Resilient Rhody” strategy in 2018, and since then the state has begun to successfully implement it through its Municipal Resilience Program. The program takes a bottom-up approach to community resilience, providing localities resources to identify hazards and priority projects, and then enabling those communities to apply for additional funds dedicated specifically for implementation. Then-Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) was instrumental in bringing Resilient Rhody to fruition; she’s now the U.S. commerce secretary, so her expertise and success with that program could be used as a model for action at the federal level.
Each of these state initiatives includes at least some reliance on nature-based solutions to mitigate flood risk. And evidence is mounting that such strategies work.
A 2018 study found that nature-based solutions were often more cost-effective than manmade barriers in reducing surge flood impacts along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast. Specifically, restoration of marsh areas, oyster reefs, and similar natural features could help cut property damage from surge flooding by almost half over 20 years, saving more than $50 billion, according to the study, which was published in the journal PLOS One.
After a 1997 flood in Fort Collins, Colo., left five people dead and caused more than $200 million in property damage, the city passed ambitious regulations to limit construction in the Cache la Poudre River’s floodplain. The city also purchased properties in the 100-year floodplain to restore two-thirds of the area to nature and parks, which now act as a sponge when the river overflows. In 2013, when much of Colorado experienced historic flooding, Fort Collins escaped substantial damage, with only eight of the nearly 14,000 structures that had been built since the 1997 flood directly hit.
So what can Congress do now? First, lawmakers should pass the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act, which was introduced in January by Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.). The bill would require consideration of future flood risks for all federally funded projects or, where such data is unavailable, incorporation of a safety factor — that is, an assumption that future floods will exceed the high-water levels depicted on current flood maps. The bill’s provisions would ensure that projects from airport modernizations to new or repaired highways, hospitals, or post offices account for increasing threats, including sea level rise and more frequent and stronger storms.
Next, Congress should establish a pre-disaster mitigation program within the Department of Transportation (DOT). The Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program, which gives states and localities access to disaster recovery funding, has been historically underfunded and doesn’t allow its funds to be used to improve the resilience of undamaged, yet vulnerable, facilities. A DOT pre-disaster mitigation program would help reduce road damage and repair costs by providing resources to improve the resiliency of vulnerable and repeatedly damaged transportation assets in advance of the next storm.
But new programs and safeguards alone will not adequately improve infrastructure resilience across the nation. Lawmakers should weave resilience and long-term planning into existing programs to help the country transition toward a more systematic approach to reducing disaster risk. For example, states could be allowed to use funds from programs such as the National Highway Performance Program to incorporate resilience into infrastructure improvements.
It’s vital that elected officials work together on solutions that can benefit all Americans, because anywhere it rains, it can flood. That means assessing flood risk for what it is — a costly and often deadly threat — and working to reduce it with smart, forward-looking policies.
Tom Wathen is a vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading the organization’s crosscutting environmental initiatives.
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