As flood waters rise, outdated standards make the nation unsafe

In late 2021, the federal government announced it would do something it hasn’t done since the 1970s: overhaul key aspects of its flood insurance rules. Since then, the need for this update has been made abundantly clear. The recent chain of storms in California caps off yet another year marked by devastating floods in eastern Kentucky, St. Louis, Dallas, Yellowstone National Park and many other locations. And Florida still is recovering from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.

Flooding exacts a terrible toll on homeowners and residents, many of whom are completely unaware that they are at risk.

You are reading: As flood waters rise, outdated standards make the nation unsafe

Climate change has made flood disasters more severe and more frequent. Yet, developers keep building in harm’s way, because outdated rules and construction standards allow them to. The result: Our nation is locked into a perpetual cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat.

One year ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took the first step toward overhauling its outdated rules and standards and asked the public what changes were needed to effectively govern development in low-lying, flood prone areas. Hundreds of people, organizations and institutions urged FEMA to update its standards. There was a clear call for climate-smart reforms that curb floodplain development, provide more accurate flood maps and ensure disclosure of past flood damages to renters and homebuyers.

As administrator of the National Flood Insurance Program, FEMA has a legal duty to adopt rules and standards that minimize the potential for future flood damages. One year and many more record-setting floods later, we’re still waiting for FEMA to propose new rules.

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Outdated standards

Despite its name, the National Flood Insurance Program does a lot more than sell flood insurance policies. It establishes minimum requirements for all local and state building codes. It also produces flood risk maps that guide local development decisions and inform engineers, architects, planners and banks where it is safe to build. More than 22,000 towns, cities, counties and states rely on these flood-risk maps and land use standards that FEMA establishes through the flood insurance program.

But the land use standards have not been updated since the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was president. A lot has changed since then. We now know about sea-level rise and extreme storms. We now know that it’s safer and more cost-effective to either elevate homes to be safer from flooding or (better yet) not develop low-lying areas at all. We now know it’s often more cost-effective to help a person move to higher ground, rather than paying them to rebuild over and over. And we know that tens of billions of dollars in damage are being caused each year by flood disasters and millions of lives disrupted.

FEMA’s land use standards are stuck in the past while communities cope with the floods of the 21st century. Archaic practices like “fill and build,” whereby developers haul in dirt to raise entire new subdivisions, are still allowed, even though this pushes runoff and floodwaters onto the now lower-lying neighborhoods that were already there.

FEMA’s land use standards also fail to require that drinking water plants, hospitals, power plants and other critical infrastructure assets be built to a greater margin of safety for flooding. These are the facilities that communities need to withstand disasters like flooding. But under FEMA’s current rules, critical infrastructure assets are built to the same standard of flood protection as a hot dog stand.

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Compounding these problems, FEMA’s flood maps don’t always paint an accurate picture of where it is safest to build, nor do they tell us critical information about future flood risk. For instance, these maps do not incorporate sea-level rise projections, which are essential to guide development in coastal areas. And they don’t account for more intense storms, leaving inland communities unaware of the greater future potential for flooding. As a result, people who live outside of the floodplain — as mapped by FEMA — are surprised when their homes flood on a regular basis.

FEMA’s flood insurance program should be a linchpin in the nation’s efforts to deal with flooding, sea-level rise and extreme storms caused by climate change. In its current form, the flood insurance program is worse than unhelpful; it’s a liability.

FEMA should be commended for asking members of the public for input on the changes that are needed. Members of flood-prone communities answered that call, loud and clear. They said they want tougher standards, better maps, and more accurate information about potential flooding.  

Now a year has passed. More flooding has devastated communities across the country. More new homes were built in harm’s way. More people were displaced from their homes. And we wait for FEMA to take the all-important next step: proposing modern rules and regulations that bring standards for building in floodplains out of the 1970s and into the era of climate change.

The nation — and the millions of people living in harm’s way — are running out of time.

Rob Moore is a senior policy analyst in the Climate Adaptation Team at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). Prior to joining NRDC in 2013, he spent nine years as executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and, prior to that, served as executive director of the Prairie Rivers Network in Illinois.

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