Our infrastructure is succumbing to natural disasters — we need to be ready for worsening floods
The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh was the latest among a growing myriad of infrastructure failures occurring across the country. Unlike Fern Hollow, many instances have involved critical assets succumbing to natural disasters. Look no further than last year, when atmospheric rivers destroyed portions of Highway 1 in California; Hurricane Ida caused more than 1 million utility customers to lose power across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; floodwaters rendered the Bloomington, Indiana Fire Department’s headquarters uninhabitable; and torrential rains led to washed-out bridges in West Virginia.
In the weeks ahead, as the funds from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in November begin to flow, lawmakers have both an opportunity and an obligation to be certain we spend that money wisely. We need to repair and replace aging infrastructure, but we must do so in ways that will offer protection against increasingly intense storms and flood events. Now is the time to support bipartisan legislation that would leverage those taxpayer dollars to make our nation’s roads, hospitals, and utilities more resilient.
We worked as key leaders in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, with a significant portion of our work involved responding to natural disasters. During our collective tenures in public service, we too often had front row seats to the human suffering and costly damage caused by catastrophic flooding, witnessing thousands lose their homes to the fury of hurricanes; localities forever changed by unprecedented floodwaters; and livelihoods upended by record-breaking deluges from coast to coast. And while there are some issues we don’t agree on, these experiences brought us together with respect to one: the critical need for a lasting fiscally responsible solution to ensure that new federal investments will not be washed away in the years to come.
Upon taking office, President Biden reinstated an Obama-era policy to ensure that federally-funded projects — such as schools and water treatment plants — would be built with future risk in mind. Known as the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, this important measure was reversed with the stroke of a pen in 2017 just days before Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast — a decision that was both frustrating and that we opposed. As we’ve seen firsthand, while the policy is once more enshrined in a presidential directive today it could disappear again in the future. It’s therefore critical that Congress take action to ensure a permanent solution.
Fortunately, a practical bipartisan proposal already exists. Introduced by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) with a slate of cosponsors, the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act would enhance the safety of communities and assure wise use of taxpayer dollars.
The concept is simple. If a highway, fire station or airport is designed to last 30, 50 or 70 years, its design should include common-sense planning and safeguards to ensure it can endure the expected frequency and magnitude of flooding during that span of time. Doing so will help minimize emergency response and repair costs, reduce supply chain disruptions and better protect the infrastructure Americans depend on daily. It will also save lives and money.
This forward-looking approach isn’t new. A growing number of localities, states and private investors across the country are leading the way in incorporating future flood risk from threats such as heavier downpours and sea-level rise when building and rebuilding.
In Houston, for example, Tropical Storm Allison caused $5 billion in damages and destroyed decades worth of medical research in 2001. But when the medical center rebuilt, it did so prioritizing resilience, installing flood gates, elevating electrical equipment, improving storm drainage and factoring in ground subsidence expected in the years to come. These upgrades kept the facility operational during Hurricane Harvey.
Elsewhere, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the Atlanta Falcons, incorporated a stormwater management system that includes a cistern, bioswales, and a 1.1 million-gallon underground vault to help prevent flooding in neighboring communities by capturing and slowly releasing stormwater. And in Massachusetts, a waterfront hospital was designed to accommodate sea-level rise projections out to the year 2100.
In 2020, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law requiring assessments of projected sea-level rise impacts over the expected life of projects — or 50 years, whichever is less — for state-funded construction in coastal areas. Importantly, those assessments must include alternative siting and design approaches that can reduce flood risk. Similar future-risk reviews have been embraced in California and in Maryland.
And public support for such laws is widespread: Polling by The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2020 found that 85 percent of Americans across the political spectrum support requiring federally funded projects in flood-prone areas be built to withstand future flooding.
Every day that lawmakers wait to act is one day closer to the next natural disaster. We don’t have a say as to when and where the next one will strike, but Congress can, and should, move now to ensure that the country is better prepared when it does by passing the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act.
Thomas P. Bossert is president of Trinity Cyber, Inc., and served as the White House assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism from 2017 to 2018.
Craig Fugate was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama and the head of Florida’s Emergency Management Agency under Gov. Jeb Bush. He currently serves on the board of America’s Public Television Stations.