The Federal Emergency Managed Agency (FEMA) recently released a proposed rule the could transform how the federal government funds infrastructure built in flood prone areas. The draft rule, formally known as Updates to Floodplain Management and Protection of Wetlands Regulations To Implement Executive Order 13690 and the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was published for public comment on August 28, 2016. Under the proposed rule, FEMA Federally Funded Projects, which are actions involving the use of FEMA funds for new construction, substantial improvement, or to address substantial damage to a structure or facility would be subject to new elevation requirements. As a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed noted it “[w]hether you are an investor assessing the $2 trillion in bonds that Moody’s found carry elevated near-term climate risk, one of the nearly two million U.S. homeowners facing significant risk from climate-related flooding, or a U.S. taxpayer staring at $360 billion in direct government costs from extreme weather over the past decade—these threats are looming, large and increasing.”
In light of these risks, the Obama Administration updated federal flood risk policy for the first time in nearly 40 years by proposing a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which orders agencies to review how they spend federal money in flood plains. Part of the directive requires that new construction or substantial improvements made to infrastructure backed with federal money be designed and elevated using one of three methods: (1) Climate-Informed Science Approach (CISA): Utilizing the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science; (2) Freeboard Value Approach (FVA): Freeboard (base flood elevation + X, where X is 3 feet for critical actions and 2 feet for other actions); (3) 0.2 percent annual chance Flood Approach (0.2PFA): 0.2 percent annual chance flood (also known as the 500-year flood); or (4) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using any other method identified in an update to the FFRMS.
Agencies that have major infrastructure missions (e.g. FEMA, the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development) will be closely watched to see which methods or methods they adopt. The first agency to propose their method (via rulemaking) was FEMA, which adopted the Freeboard Value Approach as the baseline approach for both critical and non-critical FEMA Federally Funded Projects. For FEMA investments that are critical actions, the agency would use the Freeboard Value Approach to establish the minimum elevation and allow optional use of the Climate-Informed Science Approach if the elevation is higher than the Freeboard Value Approach.
While the FFRMS marks a significant change in federal policy relating to flood resilient design and risk mitigation, the truth is stronger building codes have been adopted by states and local government for decades and the federal government is just now playing catch up. According to FEMA, 22 States and 596 localities have adopted freeboard requirements ranging from 1 to 3 feet. Finally, FEMA expects the expected increase in costs for the new elevation requirement to save both time and money in disaster recovery.
Comments on the FEMA rule are being accepted through the federal register through October 21, 2016 using Freeboard Value Approach to establish the elevation and FFRMS floodplain for FEMA Federally Funded Projects that are non-critical actions