Trump Killed Obama’s Flood Protection Rule Two Weeks Ago

by Nicholas Pinter

This post was originally published as an op-ed in Fortune.

Jesus Rodriguez rescuing Gloria Garcia after rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded Pearland, in the outskirts of Houston, on Sunday. Image source: REUTERS/Adrees Latif via Business Insider

Whether or not you like President Donald Trump, the current administration has not been gifted with great timing. Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the White House rescinded one of the most progressive flood-risk management tools on the books, an Obama-era executive order that added caution when building structures in flood-prone areas.

Obama’s order improved flood safety standards of the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP was established in 1968 to provide federally underwritten flood insurance to residents of states and communities that agree to control development in land the government deems prone to flooding. The NFIP and its flood maps are imperfect, but they beat the pre-1968 alternative, which was basically uncontrolled development on U.S. floodplains. How much worse would things be without the NFIP? Much of U.S. floodplain land might look like Houston does today, and Houston’s floodplains would be even worse.

The biggest problem with flood maps in the U.S. is that they are drawn as “lines in the sand”—implying that there is a flood risk on one side and none on the other. That is a false and dangerous message. The best way to approach a line on a flood map is like seeing a poisonous snake: Don’t panic, but stay well clear.

This issue was handled deftly by the Obama administration. In January 2015, Obama issued Executive Order 13690, which established the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS). In brief, this standard called for a more cautious approach to construction at the boundaries of flood hazard zones. The approach was flexible and didn’t even require an admission of climate change as being the cause—just more caution.

Within days, eight Republican senators sent a letter opposing the new standard as an impediment to land development and economic growth. Among the signatories was John Cornyn of Texas. Within three months of sending that letter, large areas of Cornyn’s district were underwater, including damage to new buildings that may not have been there had the FFRMS been in place earlier. Then severe flooding happened again in 2016 on the Brazos River. And now Harvey is wreaking havoc.

The new FFRMS would have limited the construction of new structures in Houston in the path of floods like the ones we’re seeing from Harvey, and the standard was an important step toward greater flood resiliency nationwide.

The senators who signed the letter opposing Obama’s Executive Order 13690 were from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. These states include some of the largest net recipients of NFIP funds. From 1994–2014, Mississippi received $5.60 in NFIP disaster payouts for every dollar in premiums its residents paid, compared to three cents for Wyoming and four cents for Utah, for example.

Why such imbalances? Bad luck, in part—Louisiana’s $3.82 is sharply reduced if you subtract Katrina. But climate change seems to be ticking up the magnitude and frequency of storms, and uncontrolled development without a doubt puts more and more infrastructure at risk. Three 500-year floods in Houston in the past three years, as some suggest, is beyond random bad luck.

Federal flood insurance payouts and other disaster relief are not just another form of political pork sent home, like highway dollars fixing potholes. Every dollar is a tiny compensation for the misery endured by flood victims. The White House’s rationale for killing Executive Order 13690 was to establish “discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects.” Score one point for partisan dogma.

Instead, our shared goal should be to find prudent measures to wind down flood losses, not convulsively labeling any limitation on developing flood-prone land as a “job killer.” The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was just such a prudent measure, a reasonable precaution to limit damages from future Harveys.

Nicholas Pinter is the Shlemon professor of applied geosciences and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.

This entry was posted in Around the World, Climate Change, flood, Floodplains, Planning and Management and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Trump Killed Obama’s Flood Protection Rule Two Weeks Ago

  1. rranade says:

    I expected a more specific description of what EO 13690 meant, before you jumped to a conclusion of what its repeal meant. The EO strictly applied to federal investments and nothing beyond; for example, it would not apply to a private development being built in harm’s way in Houston. The EO certainly did not affect NFIP standards or rates. To say “The new FFRMS would have limited the construction of new structures” is true but it is misleading unless you qualify that the only structures it would have precluded from construction are those that entailed a federal investment.

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    • gardenfreak says:

      … and who do you think backs up the various federal insurance programs and loans? let alone the subsidies and grants for various local and state projects?…

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      • Kriss says:

        Yep, and here in California who backs the insurance when we have an earthquake or when there’s a tornado in any number of states…guess they should build anywhere a hurricane could possibly affect, say like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina up through the eastern seaboard. With this reasoning there shouldn’t be anything built anywhere….lol, get a clue.

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  2. Kriss says:

    Wow….I guess Houston wouldn’t be a city if the Obama plan was set way back when. Heck, any city on the Mississippi shouldn’t be there or any next to a delta. Maybe places like Atlantic City should be dug up and dismantled along with every home within 20 miles of any beach. But I’ll say building a city below sea level wasn’t very smart….
    There just needs to be a disclaimer on any property that within 20 miles of the beach, river, lake or delta….you buy it and if you can get insurance you are on your own.

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  3. Diana C Wood says:

    This information needs to get out NOW to a much wider news media. President Trump has been going about dismantling many of the rational polices President Obama put in place. Poor land use decisions, based on greed and denial, are putting peoples lives at risk so a bunch of developers can build in flood plains etc. Please forward this article to Rachel Maddow @ MSNBC (I couldn’t figure out how to do it!)

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    • Kriss says:

      So are you saying that all those folks that build their homes within say 10 miles of the beach shouldn’t be there? Irma says it may be something like 20 miles at least. Then there is every city built on the Mississippi…come on, when you talk of flood plains there’s never going to be a safe place when the big one hits. California is the poster child….building homes next to and on faults. Then you have homes being built in tornado alley….going to make them stop. You folks really need to get a life!!

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  4. Pingback: Flood risk is about where you build stuff - jfleck at inkstain

  5. Pingback: On the Contrary » Blog Archive » De Flood, De Flood (De plane, De plane)

  6. Greg Madison says:

    When you say, “climate change seems to be ticking up the magnitude and frequency of storms,” do you mean that water is both quicker to evaporate from the surface and simultaneously quicker to precipitate from the stratosphere?

    To increase the frequency of storms, wouldn’t that require both a warmer surface (for faster evaporation) and a cooler stratosphere (to condense the water into clouds and precipitate)? I didn’t know that this was happening!

    On the other hand, for there to be an increase to the magnitude of storms, wouldn’t the stratosphere need to be warmer to keep the precipitation from occurring until a large storm was formed?

    Logically, the simultaneous uptick in the “magnitude and frequency of storms” would necessitate higher surface temperatures, a cooler stratosphere, and a hotter stratosphere.

    I’m pretty sure the climate of the planet is smarter than a logical fallacy. Are you?

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