White House releases a new flood risk management standard

On January 30, President Obama signed an executive order requiring that all federally funded construction projects take into account the flood risks linked to global warming. The standard is intended to affect new and rebuilt federally funded structures in and around floodplains and should create more opportunities for engineering firms. The goal of the new resilience standard is to create infrastructure that can better withstand the impacts of flooding. Planners of federally funded buildings, roads, and other infrastructure projects will be required to account for the impact of possible flooding from rising sea levels or more extreme precipitation, effects that scientists say will result from a warming planet.

The executive order is titled “Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard and a Process for Further Soliciting and Considering Stakeholder Input.” To meet the new standard, builders must meet one of three requirements. They can make plans using data and methods informed by the best available climate science; or build two feet above the current projected elevation for once-every-100-year floods for most projects, but three feet above that level for critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers; or build to elevations at which flooding is currently projected once every 500 years.

The standard would also make significant swaths of low-lying land ineligible for construction with federal funds. By requiring all federal investments affecting floodplains to meet higher flood risk standards, the President’s action will support the thousands of communities that have strengthened their local floodplain management codes and standards, and will help federal projects to last as long as intended.

Several scientific reports have signaled that the early effects of global warming — particularly rising sea levels and more extreme storms — are inevitable, based on the level of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Economists have begun to warn that policy makers must begin to plan for the costs of damages wrought by climate change.

NACCS basemap
Risk management strategies for coastal communities. From the NACCS study published by the Army Corps of Engineers.

According to the National Climate Assessment, more than $1 trillion of property and structures in the U.S. are at risk of inundation from sea levels rising two feet above current sea levels – an elevation that could be reached as early as 2050. That further jeopardizes the critical infrastructure Americans depend on every day for housing, transportation, energy, water supply, and more. And more than 50% of Americans live in coastal counties, where key infrastructure and evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to impacts like higher sea levels, storm surges, and flooding.

Independently from the executive order, but addressing the same issue, the Army Corps of Engineers released a comprehensive study last week that evaluates flood risks to the coastal areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and provides a framework to help communities address increasing flood risks. The study, which was called for by Congress, emphasizes the importance of improved planning, and notes that managing coastal storm risk is a shared responsibility by all levels of government. The report, known as the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study (Release Number 15-001 NACCS), brought together experts from federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and academia, to assess the flood risks facing coastal communities and ecosystems and collaboratively develop a coastal storm risk management framework to address increasing risks, which are driven in part by increased frequency and intensity of storm events and rising sea levels due to a changing climate.

The NACCS provides tools and information, including a nine-step Coastal Storm Risk Management Framework, that can be used by communities, states, tribes, and the federal government to help identify coastal risks and develop strategies for reducing those risks.

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