On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed a new order that rescinded an Obama-era rule requiring federally-funded infrastructure to follow stricter building standards aimed at reducing flood-related damages. The Obama order also required that federally-funded infrastructure built along the coastline take into account future projections for sea-level rise.
Trump’s order has already prompted swift backlash from across the political spectrum, with everyone from environmental groups to free market think-tanks arguing that there was little upside to rescinding a rule aimed at saving taxpayer money and preventing loss of life in flood-prone areas.
“There is really no benefit to rolling back this standard,” Rob Moore, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program told ThinkProgress. “Only bad things happen as a result.”
Since the Carter Administration, federal agencies have been required to avoid building in floodplains, but until 2015, there was no requirement that agencies that couldn’t — or wouldn’t — avoid building in flood-prone areas take extra steps to make those buildings resilient. In 2015, the Obama administration, by executive order, issued an update to the Federal Flood Management Program, requiring that any federal building built in a floodplain be constructed 2 to 4 feet above the 100-year flood elevation (the expected height water would rise during a once-in-100 year flood event), or to the height of the 500-year flood elevation. Additionally, federal agencies constructing projects along the coastline were instructed to look at sea-level rise projections for the project’s lifetime, and take those into account when siting and building.
According to the Office of Management and Budget, some 18,000 individual buildings across the country are situated within a 100-year floodplain. The total replacement cost for those buildings would be $83 billion. Examples of federally-funded projects covered by the Federal Flood Management Plan — and the Obama-era guidance — include things like bridges, schools, hospitals, police stations, fire stations, water treatment plants, and sewer treatment plants.
“With this directive, Donald Trump is actively wasting taxpayer dollars, endangering schools and hospitals, and threatening the lives of people around the country for no other reason than his apparent contempt for the public and his commitment to the agenda of corporate polluters,” Sierra Club director Michael Brune said in a statement. “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe.”
Taxpayers already bear a considerable amount of the cost of repairing public facilities damaged by flooding. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, flood damage cost Americans more than $260 billion between 1980 and 2013, while federal flood insurance claims averaged nearly $2 billion per year between 2006 and 2015. Since 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has spent almost $50 billion in public grants to help communities recover from federally-declared flood disasters.
“When a community is impacted by flooding, it’s often the federal government that is paying to rebuild,” Laura Lightbody, project director for Pew’s Flood-Prepared Communities initiative, told ThinkProgress.
And while the federal government currently spends billions to rebuild communities after flood-related disasters, that amount is likely to increase as climate change fuels more common and costly floods. According to to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the United States has experienced increasingly frequent, and costly, inland flood events in recent years due to more intense precipitation associated with climate change. In 2016 alone, climate-related weather events caused $46 billion in damages, with inland flooding being the most costly type of disaster.
“We already spend billions of dollars a year in federal taxpayer dollars repairing public infrastructure that is damaged in floods and hurricanes and other disasters that cause flooding,” NRDC’s Moore said. “Without this standard, we’re going to be spending increasing amounts to do the exact same thing.”
The Obama administration’s flood guidance enjoyed broad support across political ideologies, earning praise from groups environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and right-leaning groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the free-market think tank R Street Institute. In an interview with Reuters, flood policy expert and president of the R Street Institute Eli Leher called Trump’s decision to reverse the Obama-era guidance “an enormous mistake.” Trump’s order even prompted criticism from some Republican lawmakers in Congress; Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, called the move “irresponsible” in a press statement, and argued that it “will lead to taxpayer dollars being wasted on projects that may not be built to ensure the flooding we are already seeing and know is only going to get worse.”
The Obama-era guidance also enjoyed broad support from the public; according to a Pew poll, 82 percent of respondents supported a requirement that all federally-funded projects be constructed to better withstand flooding.
Perhaps the only major group to oppose the standards was the National Home Builders Association, which argued that more stringent building codes would raise the cost of construction. Trump, a former developer himself, also faces personal risk from climate-fueled sea level rise and increased flooding; as Buzzfeed first pointed out during the 2016 presidential campaign, many of Trump’s own real estate assets — from his Florida golf clubs to his Manhattan properties — could be stranded by the end of the century under various sea-level rise projections.
Flood insurance already requires all private development projects to adhere to the building standards rescinded by Trump, and many communities around the country have adopted local standards meant to ensure that projects constructed in flood-prone areas are built with an eye towards resilience. Still, Pew’s Lightbody argues that rescinding the federal guidelines sends the wrong message to communities and taxpayers across the country.
“We want to send a message from a national perspective that we are investing in flood-ready infrastructure and we are building to the highest, smartest standards we possible can,” she said. “It’s really a common sense policy.”