Obama Order Establishes New Federal Flood Risk Management Standards

By Lauren Wanko

President Obama issued an executive order the administration says will reduce the cost of future flood disasters and protect communities against the increased risk of flooding due to climate change.

“What we know now is that sea levels are projected to go up roughly a foot and a half by 2050 and be more than three feet by the end of the century. When you’re building roads, or bridges, or even a new home, you expect it to last through the century,” said New Jersey Future Senior Director of State Policy Chris Sturm.

All government agencies distributing federal funding to homeowners or for buildings, roads and other infrastructure will have to adopt the new federal flood risk management standard. Homeowners using federal funds would be required to either build two feet above the 100-year flood elevation standard — a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year — build to the 500-year flood elevation standard — a flood that has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring annually — or use data and methods informed by the best available climate science. Critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers, using federal funds, will have to build three feet above the 100-year flood elevation. An administration official tells NJTV News this does not apply to homeowners currently rebuilding or those who have already rebuilt. Homeowners receiving grants from the federal Sandy aid package should not be affected. After a 60-day public comment period, the proposed guidelines will have to be finalized. After that, agencies will each have to go through a separate individual process to decide how to implement them, which the administration official says could likely take at least several months.

“The executive order is really important because it’s catching up the federal standards up to our new understanding about risk. Up until now the standards have been based on historical information and they didn’t take into account the fact that we’re at a greater risk then ever before,” Sturm said.

The Council on Environmental Quality indicates between 1980 and 2013 the country suffered more than $260 billion in flood-related damages. Superstorm Sandy alone caused an estimated $67 billion in damages in the Northeast, $36.9 billion in New Jersey.

“The impacts in New Jersey are huge. We just surpassed Texas in being the state with the second greatest amount with payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program, so we have a huge flooding problem in New Jersey,” Sturm said.

The administration says at least 350 communities throughout the country have already adopted standards that either meet or exceed this new federal standard.

“They’re being smart, they’re recognizing that the extra cost of being a little more conservative and a little more careful is really small when you compare it to potential damage you could get,” said Sturm.

The administration says the new flood standard would not affect the standards or rates of the National Flood Insurance Program.