Flood Safety, Infrastructure, and the Feds

Standards for levees, seawalls, and other infrastructure urgently need attention.

The federal government is responsible for responding to major floods and runs the federal flood insurance program.  It also has millions of dollars of its own infrastructure at risk from floods. Yet the government is failing to deal effectively with flood risks before the fact.

Let’s begin with the levees that are the main defense against flooding. There are over 100,000 miles of levees across the United States, including about a fifth of all U.S. counties, many of which owned or operated by states, localities, or private entities. Safety regulation is spotty.

By way of background, there are actually two kinds Earthen levees are constructed from compacted soil that is typically covered with grass, gravel, stone, asphalt, or concrete, to help prevent erosion. Floodwalls, which are generally found in urban areas, are made of concrete. Levees require active maintenance such as removing trees or other vegetation, repairing concrete damage, or filling in animal burrows. 

Surprisingly, the GAO reported, the federal government does not have a program overseeing all levees across the nation, and no national standards exist for levee safety  Instead, the Corps attempts to oversee only the 15,000 miles of levees involving federal construction, maintenance, or rehabilitation.  Under 5he 2014 law, FEMA and the Corps were also supposed to establish voluntary federal safety guidelines  and a hazard classification system based solely on the potential consequences associated with a levee’s failure, as opposed to the likelihood or probability of a levee failure.”

As of mid-2016, these agencies had made little progress on some of their assigned tasks and no progress at all on others which they attributed to lack of resources. Apart from some work on incorporating FEMA information into an Army Corps data base, the situation was bleak:

“The agencies have taken no action on the remaining key national levee safety-related activities for which they were responsible and have missed several statutory deadlines for developing guidelines and reports. For example, the agencies took no action on . . . . the voluntary national levee-safety guidelines, due June 10, 2015; or a report, due June 10, 2015, that was to include, among other things, recommendations for legislation and other congressional actions necessary to ensure national levee safety. Additionally, according to agency officials we interviewed, the agencies have no current plan for implementing the remaining activities.”

In 2015, President Obama issued an order requiring greater flood precautions for federally funded infrastructure, especially critical facilities like hospitals. Although leaving room for some alternatives, the Obama Order authorized three main approaches to flood risk management for federal infrastructure:

“(i) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using a climate-informed science approach that uses the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science. . . . ;

“(ii) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using the freeboard value, reached by adding an additional 2 feet to the base flood elevation for non-critical actions and by adding an additional 3 feet to the base flood elevation for critical actions;

“(iii) the area subject to flooding by the 0.2 percent annual chance flood.”

Just days before Hurricane Harvey, Trump rolled back the Obama order, restoring a previous standard dating far back to the Carter Administration.The Obama order seems to have had three fatal flaws from a Trumpian perspective: it made construction more expensive, it was issued by Obama, and it involved climate change. In the long run, American taxpayers will find themselves paying out more in disaster relief for buildings they helped pay for in the first place, because the government failed to require proper flood precautions. In February, HUD quietly reinstated some of the Obama requirements for post-hurricane housing funding, including a directive for them to take “continued sea level rise” into account. Presumably, Ben Carson didn’t happen to notice this action. But other federal infrastructure spending remains subject only to the Carter-era rules.

This year’s hurricane season should be a wake-up call.  We need to get serious about flood risks and infrastructure. Those risks are only going to increase as sea level rises and extreme weather becomes more common.


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Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Flood Safety, Infrastructure, and the Feds”

  1. Dan said,
    “…..Those risks are only going to increase as sea level rises and extreme weather becomes more common…..”

    Dear Dan,
    Given that there no real evidence of a significant increase in sea level, and extreme weather events are no more common today than they have always been, then the so-called “risks” of major flooding will likely remain about the same. Ho hum, more of the same old inanity.

    1. What is BQRQ’s source for this information? Maybe it is the same one he used last time that claims the government is conspiring with extraterrestrials and that 9/11 was an inside job?

      For those who are interested in reality:

      “Core samples, tide gauge readings, and, most recently, satellite measurements tell us that over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). However, the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches (3.2 millimeters) a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years.

      Over the past century, the burning of fossil fuels and other human and natural activities has released enormous amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. These emissions have caused the Earth’s surface temperature to rise, and the oceans absorb about 80 percent of this additional heat.”

      That is from just under 1° C global temperature increase that we have seen in the last century. Forecasts are that we are looking at a 3° to 4° increase in the coming century, with significant effects:

      “Most predictions say the warming of the planet will continue and is likely to accelerate. Oceans will likely continue to rise as well, but predicting the degree to which they will rise is an inexact science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we can expect the oceans to rise between 11 and 38 inches (28 to 98 centimeters) by 2100, enough to swamp many of the cities along the U.S. East Coast. More dire estimates, including a complete meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet, place sea level rise to 23 feet (7 meters), enough to submerge London.”


      Of course BQRQ will say that we shouln’t care, that taking care of the earth does not matter, and that we should focus on the afterlife. By even Christian standards his fatalism is immoral, but he will latch on to anything that will allow him to justify his faith in climate denial.

      1. Dear BBQ Planet,
        You and I have become the epitome of climate debate on the internet and it is unlikely that anyone could offer more insight and better information than what we provide. Whether we agree or disagree, the climate does not care and life goes on just like it always has.

        Our sojourn on earth is merely a blip in time – eternal life is where the action is and that is what smart people focus on. When you learn as much about Holy Scripture as you know about climate then our polite conversation can proceed to a higher level. Have a good day. May God Bless.

        1. If you mean that the epitome of an internet debate is one person provides evidence and the other ignores it (I don’t think you have responded to a link I’ve posted even a single time) then yes, this is unfortunately all too typical of an internet debate. Since you have a clear allergy to honest debate, I post here not to convince you but so that others will not be duped by the falsehoods you insist on spreading.

          “the climate does not care and life goes on just like it always has”

          Well since the climate is not a person then, yes, it doesn’t care. Unfortunately the world’s scientists disagree with you that life will go on just like it always has. You invite lots of adversity for the human race by your stubborn ignorance and that of those like you.

          “eternal life is where the action is and that is what smart people focus on”

          Not really: throughout history and into the current day the intelligent and educated among us have been much less likely to believe in an afterlife than the rest. Beyond that I’m going to pass on your desire to divert a discussion on an environmental forum into religious matters, except to say that I’m pretty sure my knowledge of the Bible would not be found wanting in any conversation with you. Also, your overarching Christian Fatalism would be considered immoral by the vast majority Christian denominations.

          If you don’t care about your own children’s future, or if you have none, at least consider caring about the future of others’ children. That may be a big thing to ask of you, but you should try.

  2. “This year’s hurricane season should be a wake-up call.”

    Did someone hit the snooze button last year?

    In 2017, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused approximately $265 billion in damage according to NOAA estimates. Harvey was Houston’s third “500-year event” (.02% annual flood chance) in three years, and FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is $30 billion in debt.

    Sleep tight, everyone.

  3. A Biblical Meditation on Aging:

    Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind;

    When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)


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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more