Hurricane Harvey has wreaked havoc on Texas, leaving at least nine people dead and racking up potentially billions of dollars in damages. Soon enough, federal aid is expected to be issued to help rebuild communities across the state. Under regulations proposed by the Obama administration, any federally-funded infrastructure or buildings would’ve been rebuilt to withstand record-setting flood events. But earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump rescinded that regulation, and now Harvey is demonstrating why his decision matters.
The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, announced in January 2015, set out to ensure that any project using federal funds considers and assesses flood risks. The regulation gave federal agencies three options to establish the appropriate flood elevation level for a certain project: use the best climate science available to inform their decision; build two feet above the 100-year flood elevation for standard projects and three feet above for buildings like hospitals or evacuation centers; or build to the 500-year flood elevation level.
A 500-year flood elevation is applied to places that have a 0.2 percent chance annually of being flooded by the kind of rain we’ve seen in Harvey. While that may seem like slim odds, it’s expected that Harvey will be classified as a 500-year flood—the third in as many years for the city of Houston.
That’s why Obama’s regulations stood out as being a important measure.
“It remains the most significant action that any administration has taken in generations” to help flood-proof infrastructure, said Raphael Lemaitre, the former director of public affairs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency
The regulation had yet to fully go into effect before Trump announced on Aug. 15 that he was rescinding the flood standard. None of this is to say that the Obama’s standards would have had an immediate impact on what is happening in the Houston region. Infrastructure projects, of course, take a long time to come to fruition.
But the regulations offered “sound” guidelines for infrastructure projects, said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers, “including when they had to rebuild after an event like Hurricane Harvey.”
It was the best the U.S. had offered, to date, to make infrastructure less-vulnerable to floods.
“The FFRMS offered sound disaster and flood risk management guidelines that assessed risk, identified strategies to avoid risk when possible, and required insurance or other financial arrangements for unavoidable risks,” Pallasch said. The ASCE supported the regulation as it was originally proposed.
There were some limits to the Obama administration’s effort: for instance, the federal government’s jurisdiction over roads and buildings is limited; states and local agencies aren’t required to follow suit and set standards of their own.
But the thinking was that a federal standard would have a “cascading effect” and move state and local governments to adopt similar measures, said Lemaitre.
“So it’s really frustrating to see an administration rescind rules that we know over the longer term is actually going to save taxpayer money,” he said. “It makes no sense for us to continue to dip into federal taxpayer pockets to pay for infrastructure and rebuild infrastructure over and over again.”
In effect, making infrastructure more flood-proof saves the public money down the line, supporters of the rules say, all the while fortifying roads and buildings along the way. Building things cheaper now just means they’ll fall apart during a soon-to-come catastrophic storm. Therein lies the rub. Major flooding events are occurring with increasing frequency, and that means more federal aid is going to be needed.
“While this rule impacted only buildings and infrastructure that used federal funds, it offered a model for communities to use regardless of where funding came from,” Pallash said. “Flood risk continues to increase and pose challenges for communities across the nation. There are common sense things, like FFRMS, that we can do to ensure that the investments we make in infrastructure will last.”
Pallash said that Harvey is a “historic storm” and designing a city to withstand 50 inches of rain within a few days isn’t “financially prudent because of its rarity.” But he said that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help abate similar circumstances that arise in future flood events.
“If fully implemented and once all Federally funded buildings meet the guidelines, it would protect people and property, reduce federal expenses associated with rebuilding after tremendous flood losses, and make communities stronger,” he said.
Lemaitre said that, while at FEMA, he “lost count” of how many record-setting flood events the agency responded to.
“What we know for certain is that it’s indisputable that this is the most common and costly disaster we see in the United States,” he said. “We also know it’s becoming more severe and frequent.”
The former president’s administration estimated the regulations would increase building costs by anywhere from 0.25 percent to 1.25 percent, but the extra cost up front would mitigate the need for public financial assistance down the line.
And while the federal government couldn’t force local governments to make similar changes, it may have goaded municipalities to adopt similar precautionary measures. Again, state and local governments have the option to rebuild infrastructure to the 500 year floodplain level and above, but Texas has shown little interest in doing so.
“Here we are — what is this, eight years after Ike? — and nothing’s changed,” Annise Parker, Houston’s former mayor, told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, in a reference to the last hurricane to ravage Texas. “I don’t think we’ve done enough, and I don’t think we made enough progress.”
Nevertheless, Harvey hasn’t changed Trump’s mind. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to Newsweek a spokesperson said that Obama’s order left “little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgement or incorporate the particular context of the project setting.” The spokesperson told the news outlet that the standard was developed “without sufficient analysis as to the economic impacts associated with its ultimate implementation.”
Current estimates suggest Harvey will cause $40 billion to as much as $100 billion in damages.