All posts tagged 'FEMA'

Floods in Texas, Flood Mapping, Flood Dollars

May 25, 2015 01:12
by J. Wylie Donald
Floods on the Rio Blanco these past few days demonstrate the link to climate change, but not in the way you think. It was a horrible Memorial Day weekend in Hays County, Texas. At least three people died from the worst flooding seen since 1922. The Rio Blanco crested at 43 feet, 30 feet over flood stage. Over 400 homes were destroyed and the interstate (I-35) was under water.

Climate Change Effects | Regulation | Weather

Will Climate Change Considerations Affect Rebuilding After Sandy? The Short Answer is Yes.

November 27, 2012 08:51
by J. Wylie Donald
West Virginia today and Virginia yesterday became the seventh and eighth states to obtain the benefits of a federal Major Disaster Declaration in connection with Superstorm Sandy.  They follow New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Delaware.  What does that mean?  Money.  Lots of money.  A key question will be whether that money goes to improving the resilience of the community for the next severe storm. As the FEMA announcements point out, eligible state and local governments may obtain: • Payment of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs for removing debris from public areas and for emergency measures, including direct federal assistance, taken to save lives and protect property and public health • Payment of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs for repairing or replacing damaged public facilities, such as roads, bridges, utilities, buildings, schools, recreational areas and similar publicly owned property, as well as certain private non-profit organizations engaged in community service activities.• Payment of not more than 75 percent of the approved costs for hazard mitigation projects undertaken by state and local governments to prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property from natural or technological disasters.  However, if improvements are desired, “[f]ederal funding for such improved projects shall be limited to the Federal share of the approved estimate of eligible costs."  44 CFR 206.203(d). Discerning readers will have latched on to “eligible costs” as the essential criteria of the payments. What are they?  The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. 5121-5207, makes that clear and it is not a good result.   Under the Stafford Act, eligible costs are “[based on] the design of the facility as the facility existed immediately before the major disaster; and (ii) in conformity with codes, specifications, and standards … applicable at the time at which the disaster occurred.”  42 USC 5172(e)(1)(A).  In other words, to put it in the words of Sean Reilly, a Board member of the post-Katrina Louisiana Recovery Authority, “Under the Stafford Act, you pretty much are relegated to building it back the way it was. You get the depreciated dollar, and you get a vision that says, 'OK, that was a 40-year-old building; let's rebuild a 40-year-old building.'”  But surely improved building codes or zoning requirements are covered?  They are, but only if they were in place before the calamity.  The regulations provide:  “For the costs of Federal, State, and local repair or replacement standards which change the predisaster construction of facility to be eligible, the standards must:  [among other things, be] formally adopted and implemented by the State or local government on or before the disaster declaration date.” 44 C.F.R. 206.226(b)(3)(i). One might justifiably be concerned that states and communities are being condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.  But there is a path to succor:  hazard mitigation by the FEMA Regional Director.  “Hazard mitigation” is “any cost effective measure which will reduce the potential for damage to a facility from a disaster event.” 44 CFR 206.201(f).  Under the regulations, the Regional Director is authorized to “require cost effective hazard mitigation measures not required by applicable standards. The cost of any requirements for hazard mitigation placed on restoration projects by FEMA will be an eligible cost for FEMA assistance.” 44 CFR 206.226(c).  That is, pre-disaster rules and codes are not the only game in town. If a state or municipality rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy wants federal dollars to help it anticipate the exigencies of the future, the FEMA Regional Director must be part of the dialogue. The future is a changing climate.  Thus, the dialogue will almost certainly include climate change adaptation.  Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation filed a petition in October seeking to have FEMA explicitly require that climate change be considered in the preparation of state hazard mitigation plans. Connecticut and California already do so and FEMA Administrator Fugate appears to be on board.  As he stated in February of this year: "When I talk about climate resilience, I’m talking about how we need to forcefully communicate the risk we face in not building resilience to climate change at the local level, which might not have been in anyone’s experience previously ….  We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model.  Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, oftentime steps up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this.” A premise of the NRDC and NWF petition is that "If states receive federal funds for their disaster mitigation efforts, national taxpayers have a right to demand that the states engage in thoughtful planning to reduce the ultimate federal cost."  We think few would disagree with that.  We likewise think, as the petitioners do, that climate change needs to be part of the plan.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Regulation | Weather

The NFIP is Renewed and Reformed, and Climate Change Is Very Much in the Picture

July 8, 2012 14:18
by J. Wylie Donald
President Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, aka "MAP-21", this past Friday.  Support was broad:  the House voted 373-52; in the Senate it was 74-19 in favor.  The bill is a potpourri.  The bulk of the enactment addresses surface transportation topics, but it also includes measures to keep down student loan interest rates, overflights of the Grand Canyon, sport fish restoration, and extensive reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (including significant climate change provisions).  Interestingly, the White House eschews both statutorily-provided titles and chooses a simpler nomenclature, the Transportation and Student Loan Bill.  According to the White House, the Bill "accomplishes two important goals -- keeping thousands of construction workers on the job rebuilding America's infrastructure and preventing interest rates on federal student loans from doubling." These features are important, but we think the bill's significance will come from the unheralded feature:  reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  Reform is sorely needed.  As stated on the FEMA "Rethinking the NFIP" website, "The NFIP was designed as a means of discouraging unwise occupancy of flood prone areas, yet occupancy of these areas has expanded since 1968. Additionally, as risks continue to increase, the cost of flood insurance mirrors that increase, making it unaffordable for many Americans."  Criticism of the NFIP was nearly universal following Hurricane Katrina.  The program was underfunded - premiums came nowhere near the amount needed to cover claims (the NFIP is over $15 billion in debt).  Floods were repeatedly damaging the same properties, which had been rebuilt sometimes three or four times in the same location.  Fewer than half the properties at risk were covered; in some areas uninsured properties were the substantial majority.    The Washington Post in a 2005 editorial called for compulsory insurance and the end of subsidized rates.  A Wall Street Journal article reached similar conclusions.  Notwithstanding, reform could not be obtained.  The NFIP limped along living (and, on occasion, even dying) on borrowed time.   Since 2008, it has been extended no fewer than 15 times.  Four times the program lapsed as lawmakers could not come to terms.    Somehow, however, with the most recent extension due to expire on July 31, reformers prevailed and the act was revised and extended for another five years to September 30, 2017.  The reform act, known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (sec. 100201)), can be found at Title II of Division F (Miscellaneous) of MAP-21.   The reforms are extensive (and they will leave many wondering how any of these reforms were opposed in the first place).  Among other things, the bill provides: Subsidies for many properties are being phased out.  For example, a "severe repetitive loss property" (i.e., where payments for flood-related damage exceed fair market value of the property) is no longer eligible for a subsidized rate (sec. 100205(a)(1)). In setting rates the principles and standards of the American Academy of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society are to be followed, including "an estimate of the expected value of future costs" (sec. 100205(b)(3)).  The "average historical loss year" is to include "catastrophic loss years" (suggesting that previous averages did not include catastrophic losses, which is a calculus many would like to use with their insurers) (sec. 100211). Insurance premiums can now rise up to 20% per year (sec. 100205(c)).  10% was the earlier cap on premium increases. Multifamily properties (greater than 4 residences) can now  purchase NFIP policies (sec. 100204). There are now minimum deductibles for flood claims (sec. 100210).. A Technical Mapping Advisory Council is established to address flood map revision and maintenance  (sec. 100215(a)). A variety of studies are required:  among others, a study of the addition of business interruption and additional living expenses coverages; a report on graduated risk behind levees; a report on privatizing the NFIP; a report on "nationally recognized building codes as part of the floodplain management criteria", and a study on participation in, and affordability of, the NFIP (secs. 100231, 100232, 100233, 100235, 100236). In light of the politicization of the climate change topic, perhaps the most astounding of all the changes in the NFIP is the acknowledgement in the bill that climate change is a critical consideration in establishing a program that works.  (We and others have called for this for some time, see Underwater?  What Climate Change Means for a Loan Portfolio Near the Flood Plain).  The Technical Mapping Advisory Council must report to the FEMA Administrator within one year of enactment on the following: 100215(d) Future Conditions Risk Assessment and Modeling Report- (1) IN GENERAL- The Council shall consult with scientists and technical experts, other Federal agencies, States, and local communities to-- (A) develop recommendations on how to-- (i) ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the best available climate science to assess flood risks; and (ii) ensure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses the best available methodology to consider the impact of-- (I) the rise in the sea level; and (II) future development on flood risk; ... And this report cannot just sit on the shelf.  The Administrator is obligated to, "as part of the ongoing program to review and update National Flood Insurance Program rate maps ..., shall incorporate any future risk assessment submitted [in the required report] in any such revision or update." (sec. 100215(d)(2)). We note that the statute speaks definitively about sea level rise.  It is not something indefinite; rather, the report must consider the impact of the rise in the sea level.  We also note that "best available climate science" is standard phrasing at NOAA, and the National Park Service, as well as among NGOs.  How it will fare in the ultimate report is, of course, unknown.  But we do not expect the effects of climate change will be shouted down, turned away or buried.  At the end of the day, the conclusions in the report will influence how money is to be spent and who will profit.  The best way to figure that out is to use the best information.  Certainly some will have an interest in obscuring the best available science, but the bipartisan support of the bill suggests that many more may have an interest in just getting the best answer.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Flood Insurance | Legislation | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

FEMA Flood Maps are All Wet - They Don't Consider Climate Change

November 2, 2010 16:52
by J. Wylie Donald
Last week brought another edition of the Flood Insurance Rate Maps. FEMA announced on October 29 that it was releasing new preliminary flood maps for Montgomery County, Maryland. Click here.  It has been 14 years since the last flood plain map was created and the good citizens have seen substantial changes in that period. Montgomery County's planning arm sets forth in its 2007-2009 report that the population has boomed over the last thirty years with an anticipated increase of 14% this decade, the fastest growing in Maryland. Click here. The effect of all this growth is telling. "Several factors—including sustained job and population expansion, declining supplies of greenfield space, and land use policies favoring in-fill and transit-oriented development—have reinforced this pattern of concentrated development in recent years. Growth, density and mixed-used development are transforming former commuter suburbs into increasingly more urban-like environments." So with all that change, re-doing the flood plain maps is necessary, and overdue. Unfortunately, these maps are outdated even as they are issued. This is not simply because additional development affects them. It is because they do not consider climate change. This bears repeating. The FEMA flood maps do not consider climate change. And it is not just some blogger saying it. The Delaware River Basin Commission wrote in 2009: "Future development and the impacts of climate change are not taken into account during the development of FEMA flood hazard area mapping." Click here. Why is this significant? One of the fundamental predictions of climate scientists is that climate change is going to deliver more extreme weather. In the Northeast, for example, there will be more frequent storms and more severe storms. It should be obvious that these will increase the frequency of flooding and the 100-year flood will now become the 50-year flood or the 25-year flood. As most know, the FEMA flood map shows the 100-year flood plain. Inside the flood plain, certain construction requirements are imposed, and flood insurance is required of all who would be involved in federal programs (such as loan guarantees from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac). Outside the 100-year floodplain, neither condition applies. Accordingly, if the 100-year floodplain is inaccurately set forth, numerous properties just outside the erroneous line are more likely to be subjected to a flood than the occupant or owner anticipates, and are more likely not to have flood insurance. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it is. The spring floods in Nashville caused over $1 billion in damage. FEMA reported only 100 National Flood Insurance policies in the the entirety of Davidson County (where Nashville is located).1  Why so few? Because no one believed they were in the flood plain. This mentality is only going to get worse, particularly if FEMA publishes flood maps without pointing out that it is ignoring an undeniable substantial factor: climate change.       1 Jeff Casale, Significant losses expected after floods soak Nashville, Business Insurance (May 10, 2010).

Climate Change | Flood Insurance | Weather

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