Whether or not you like President Donald Trump, the current administration has not been gifted with great timing. Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the White House rescinded one of the most progressive flood-risk management tools on the books, an Obama-era executive order that added caution when building structures in flood-prone areas.
Obama’s order improved flood safety standards of the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP was established in 1968 to provide federally underwritten flood insurance to residents of states and communities that agree to control development in land the government deems prone to flooding. The NFIP and its flood maps are imperfect, but they beat the pre-1968 alternative, which was basically uncontrolled development on U.S. floodplains. How much worse would things be without the NFIP? Much of U.S. floodplain land might look like Houston does today, and Houston’s floodplains would be even worse.
The biggest problem with flood maps in the U.S. is that they are drawn as “lines in the sand”—implying that there is a flood risk on one side and none on the other. That is a false and dangerous message. The best way to approach a line on a flood map is like seeing a poisonous snake: Don’t panic, but stay well clear.
This issue was handled deftly by the Obama administration. In January 2015, Obama issued Executive Order 13690, which established the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS). In brief, this standard called for a more cautious approach to construction at the boundaries of flood hazard zones. The approach was flexible and didn’t even require an admission of climate change as being the cause—just more caution.
Within days, eight Republican senators sent a letter opposing the new standard as an impediment to land development and economic growth. Among the signatories was John Cornyn of Texas. Within three months of sending that letter, large areas of Cornyn’s district were underwater, including damage to new buildings that may not have been there had the FFRMS been in place earlier. Then severe flooding happened again in 2016 on the Brazos River. And now Harvey is wreaking havoc.
The new FFRMS would have limited the construction of new structures in Houston in the path of floods like the ones we’re seeing from Harvey, and the standard was an important step toward greater flood resiliency nationwide.
The senators who signed the letter opposing Obama’s Executive Order 13690 were from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. These states include some of the largest net recipients of NFIP funds. From 1994–2014, Mississippi received $5.60 in NFIP disaster payouts for every dollar in premiums its residents paid, compared to three cents for Wyoming and four cents for Utah, for example.
Why such imbalances? Bad luck, in part—Louisiana’s $3.82 is sharply reduced if you subtract Katrina. But climate change seems to be ticking up the magnitude and frequency of storms, and uncontrolled development without a doubt puts more and more infrastructure at risk. Three 500-year floods in Houston in the past three years, as some suggest, is beyond random bad luck.
Federal flood insurance payouts and other disaster relief are not just another form of political pork sent home, like highway dollars fixing potholes. Every dollar is a tiny compensation for the misery endured by flood victims. The White House’s rationale for killing Executive Order 13690 was to establish “discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects.” Score one point for partisan dogma.
Instead, our shared goal should be to find prudent measures to wind down flood losses, not convulsively labeling any limitation on developing flood-prone land as a “job killer.” The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was just such a prudent measure, a reasonable precaution to limit damages from future Harveys.
Nicholas Pinter is the Shlemon professor of applied geosciences and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.