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SOS Congress: Nation’s Flood Policy Is Not Keeping Up with Climate Change Reality

, Climate Resilience Analyst | September 18, 2019, 12:00 pm EST
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September is preparedness month and for good reason. It is a time when the Atlantic Basin Hurricane season is at its peak.

The National Hurricane Center is now tracking three storms, Hurricane Humberto, tropical depression Imelda, and tropical storm Jerry. Preparedness month provides the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with an opportunity to focus the public and Congress’s attention on the need to prepare the public to extreme weather events. The reality is, we need to be prepared for extreme weather and climate change-related impacts year-round.

The official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) is from 1 June to 30 November. As seen in the graph above, the peak of the season is from mid-August to late October. However, deadly hurricanes can occur anytime in the hurricane season.

The cornerstone 50-year old policy targeted on flood risk preparedness is the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Congress must reauthorize NFIP by the end of this month. The House and Senate have bills teed up to address this. For more background on the NFIP, please see previous UCS blogposts here and here.

I’ll say more on that but first, let’s review some of the recent rainfall, flooding and hurricane events and impacts and the climate connection to underscore why Congress ought to act with urgency to reauthorize NFIP.

An above normal hurricane season: check

Our hearts and minds are with the many families and communities in the U.S. and territories that are still working to get their lives back to normal after sequential years of record rainfall and back to back flood disasters.  Most recently the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated Abaco Island in the Bahamas but luckily just grazed the  U.S. southeastern coastal states. We’re still in the middle of the hurricane se, we need to brace for additional storms fueled by climate change during this hurricane season and in the future.

Up until just a few days ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had tracked 7 events. The number of named storms changed quickly to now ten named storms for the six month season that ends on November 30.  AccuWeather predicts this hurricane season will be “back-end-loaded” and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center’s latest outlook finds that there’s a 45% probability for an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season. This means we could likely see as many as 10-17 storms, 5-9 of which could become hurricanes. NOAA predicts that of those hurricanes, 2-4 could be major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or greater).

A soggy nation: check

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Joshua Stevens using soil moisture data from the NASA-USDA SMAP team and using GRACE data from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and rainfall data from The Iowa Environmental Mesonet The Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM). Story by Mike Carlowicz.

In May of this year, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that the United States experienced the soggiest 12 months in 124 years of modern recordkeeping as far as both groundwater and soil moisture. NASA’s map of the levels of groundwater across the U.S. shows a largely blue map, indicating an abundance of groundwater.  While the map of soil moisture shows a swath of green indicating that the majority of the nation’s soil was swamped with moisture from all of the rainfall. 

The National Weather Service’s (NWS) latest and preliminary assessment of direct flood fatalities finds that there have been 80 direct flood fatalities to date this year.  Heavy rainfall events to date include:

  • An active tropical depression Imelda brewed quickly and with it will come heavy rainfall and flooding in the Houston area. Rainfall is already coming down and causing localized flooding and over the next few days the Houston area could expect up to 18 inches of rainfall and widespread flooding.
  • Also this week, the Missouri River is likely to see a third round of record flooding based on a forecast of 58.8 million acre feet of water just second to the 61 million acre feet in 2011. The National Weather Service estimated that rainfall over the first two weeks of September was between 200 and 600 percent of normal rainfall over the entire Missouri River Basin. The U.S. Army Corps of 
  • Engineers is watching the changes closely and will likely need to authorize releases at Gavins Point Dam.
  • In May, the Southern Plains states—especially Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana–saw historic flooding that also impacted agriculture, roads, bridges, levees, and dams, as well as other infrastructure.
  • In March, heavy precipitation and snow melt brought historic flooding in the Midwest. Seven states were severely impacted including Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Floodwaters inundated millions of acres of agriculture, numerous cities and towns, and caused widespread damage to roads, bridges, levees and dams.

 A Climate Connection: check

  • More Intense Rainfall:  From 1958 to 2016, New England and the Upper Midwest have seen 36-45% increase in the top 1 percent of the heaviest rainfall events and this is projected to intensify into the future. While new analysis finds that monsoon rain storms have become more intense in the southwestern U.S.
  • More Frequent Coastal Flooding: a new study assessed how climate change influences the frequency of coastal flooding along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico Coastlines into the late century under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5). By looking at the combined impacts of storm surge, sea level rise, and the projected increase in occurrence and strength of tropical storms and hurricanes they found  that the historical 100-year flood levels would occur annually in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions and every 1-30 years in the southeast Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions in the late 21st century.  Given this change in frequency the authors strongly recommend that future flood mapping and flood mitigation planning account for these projected effects of sea level rise and tropical storms due to climate change.
  • More Powerful Hurricanes: We know that warmer air which holds more moisture, warmer oceans have been found to increase hurricane power. Imagine that Dorian is now the fifth hurricane to reach category five—the highest level possible on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—over the past four hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic.

Recent House and Senate actions to date

The Midwest and southern plains flooding, along with the recent devastating hurricanes, combined with the implications of the latest climate change science together are a recipe for a SOS call to Congress to fast-track a robust NFIP reauthorization.

Here is a brief overview of the most recent House and Senate actions:

 

On the House side, on June 12 the House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed Rep. Maxine Waters (CA 43) bill H.R.3167, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019, which would reform and reauthorize the NFIP for five years (I provided an overview of this bill in a previous blog).

H.R. 3167 includes important reforms including $500 million a year for five years for flood mapping and a five year pilot program to increase insurance affordability as well as allowing for monthly premium payments. In addition, the bill provides more resources for flood risk reduction, including $200 million each year for five years for the flood mitigation assistance program and funds for a state revolving loan program for flood mitigation. Here’s a section by section summary of what the bill does.

Roughly one month later on the Senate side, Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) (along with 10 influential senators who co-sponsored the bill) introduced S.2187, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019 that would also reform and reauthorize NFIP for five years. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ 6) along with 15 co-sponsors introduced a similar, “companion” bill in the House, H.R.3872, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019.

 

The Senate bill goes further than the House bill in addressing the affordability of flood insurance. In addition to a five-year pilot program to provide means-tested assistance for low-income policy holders and authorizing monthly payments, it would also exclude catastrophic loss years and cap annual rate increases to 9 percent.  This would cut FEMA’s authority to increase premiums in half. This provision would ensure a risk-based insurance premium while also helping to keep affordability in check. S.2187 would provide $400 million per year for the National Flood Mapping Program. This Senate bill would also require the disclosure of flood risk and prior flood damage to homebuyers. Such a provision is a big step forward in ensuring transparency regarding previously flooded properties and consumer protection for homebuyers and renters. Here is a section by section summary of all of the provisions included in the S. 2187.

There is also the House bill H.R. 3111 which would make administrative changes on NFIP to address flood insurance claims and appeals issues.

A Fast Approaching Deadline

We need steadfast Congressional leadership to become a climate-ready nation. FEMA is stretched thin and doesn’t have the resources to respond to the big disasters, extreme weather events are causing more mental health issues, and climate change is outpacing the implementation of adaptation measures.  Studies indicate that people have short-term memories, are quick to normalize extreme and unusual weather events, base their future expectations on the past, and have ‘optimism bias’. To summarize, society is not prepared for the “new normal”. Given that NFIP is the keystone of our current flood preparedness and recovery policies, Congress ought to treat the reauthorization as a “must pass” bill instead of yet another short-term extension that would maintain business as usual.

While Congress will likely put off any new, robust policies and extend NFIP for a 14th time, there is one effort that will bring new thinking on how best to provide relief to communities recovering from federally declared disasters. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced recently that the agency will release $7.65 billion to 15 states and localities to help make disaster-damaged communities more resilient, particularly low- and moderate-income people. Different from the past disaster aid packages, the rules for this disaster assistance ensure that resources must go to projects that will withstand increasingly severe storms, hurricanes, and other impacts of climate change instead of simply repair and rebuilding.

Given the extreme weather and climate change impacts we’re already experiencing, this isn’t the time for Congress to kick the can down the road on reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.

Both the House and Senate should have meaningful discussions to ensure the most robust policy proposals are incorporated into one bill and passed unanimously. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus previously blogged, NFIP reform policies should:

  • Update and fund flood risk maps nationwide using the latest technology, science, future conditions including climate change, and the Technical Mapping Advisory Council
  • Phase in risk-based insurance premiums and expanding the number of people carrying insurance to ensure adequate coverage for the growing numbers of homes exposed to flood risk, and to put the program on a more financially and actuarially-sound footing.
  • Include affordability provisions for low- and moderate-income households through targeted vouchers, rebates, grants and low-interest loans for flood mitigation measures.
  • Provide more resources and expand FEMA’s budget for homeowners and communities to invest in reducing their flood risks ahead of disasters, including expanding funding for and expediting voluntary home buyout programs and nature based solutions especially in places that flood repeatedly.
  • Ensure the disclosure of flood risk and prior flood damage to homebuyers to provide consumer protections and educate homebuyers on the potential for flood risk.
  • Ensuring that a well-regulated private sector flood insurance market complements the NFIP without undermining it, including mandating that private insurers contribute to flood mapping fees and provide coverage at least as broad as NFIP policies.

The current outlook indicates that Congress will probably pass a short-term reauthorization through November or December. That means any meaningful reauthorization bill will likely be delayed until after the new year. Instead, we need the House and Senate to come together on the many bipartisan points of agreement and let the reality of where we’ve been and what we’ll face in a warming world move critical reforms forward in a bipartisan bill ASAP.

Nebraska National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley
NOAA

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