Will Obama’s climate preparation order force flood planners into the future?


It’s been over a month since rain-swollen creeks tore through roads and flooded homes in Colorado’s Front Range. While the camera crews have long since gone home, the disaster isn’t over for families who suffered property damage. Of the 20,000 single-family homes in the Boulder area, only 3,504 had flood insurance – one of the highest ratios in Colorado. Four thousand homes were damaged in Boulder alone.

Homes within the 100-year flood zone backed by federal mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance, often at subsidized rates, through the National Flood Insurance Program, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But September’s flooding swamped uninsured Colorado homes well above the 100-year floodplain – just as homes in New York and New Jersey outside the flood zone were swamped by Hurricane Sandy last year, and Vermont homes were sunk by Tropical Storm Irene the year before.

Typically, a 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. As climate change continues to push weather patterns toward extremes, though, many climatologists are finding these once-in-a-lifetime weather events to occur more frequently: A report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that human-induced climate change played a role in several extreme weather events of 2012. There’s been a push among climate scientists and private insurance agencies to update federal flood maps to reflect what HCN contributing editor Craig Childs calls the “new high water mark:” areas beyond historical flood zones that are now at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, different runoff patterns and more intense storms.

"Old statistics on flood risk are obsolete," Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told InsideClimate News. "Increasingly, (FEMA) should be looking ahead."

Jamestown, Colo., in Boulder County, on Sept. 15, 2013. Wikimedia photo courtesy Steve Zumwalt/FEMA.

On Nov. 1, President Obama issued an executive order mandating that FEMA and other federal agencies do just that. Obama’s “climate preparedness and resilience” order builds on the administration’s Climate Action Plan released in June which, among other things, seeks to reduce carbon emissions by regulating power plants. The latest executive order requires all agencies to “modernize” their approach to climate change, and creates a task force of governors, mayors and local leaders who will examine whether money spent on infrastructure stands up to extreme weather. It also requires land and water to be managed with an eye to climate change, and may mean that more federal assistance will be directed at state and local governments that invest in resilient infrastructure.

Though the executive order was praised by the Environmental Protection Agency and some environmentalists, its somewhat vague language seems more symbolic than practical – it was issued just a week before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Warsaw meeting and a few days after Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary. One American en route to the UN meetings admitted that while she’s hopeful the order is a step in the right direction, she suspects it was a political move designed to placate climate-savvy world leaders while largely escaping the scrutiny of the conservative set of the American public.

Indeed, the climate order hasn’t received much attention in the U.S. Yet federal agencies are required by law to comply with it. According to Brad Plumer of the Washington Post, one result may be that “federal disaster-relief programs that help coastal communities rebuild after a storm or flood will have to take into account the possibility that the next storm or flood could be even worse. Likewise, roads and bridges built with federal money will have to be planned with changing climate conditions – such as future sea-level rise – in mind.”

The question remains: Will FEMA comply before the next big storm hits? In 2012, FEMA officials said they’d begin upping insurance premiums to reflect risk, as well as updating flood maps more regularly. But the agency doesn’t exactly have a record of expeditious improvements: New York’s maps were just updated for the first time in 26 years. Many homeowners there were shocked to learn that the number of private residences in the flood zone had doubled (meaning twice as many residents are now required to buy flood insurance), even though the changes still didn’t account for new high-water marks left by Hurricane Sandy. Plus many climate scientists thought they fell short of addressing predicted changes in ocean levels.

The California coast is another region where sea level rise could impact flood zones: The Pacific Institute, a non-profit research center, concludes that “sea-level rise will inevitably change the character of the California coast, and that adaptation strategies must be evaluated, tested, and implemented if the risks … are to be reduced or avoided.” Yet FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms says that the agency's flood mapping in the region “is based on historical and best available data, not future predictions.”

(FEMA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether the climate order will require them to change the way they design flood maps.)

Of course, while updating flood maps in the West may give more communities the insurance money to rebuild after natural disaster, they don’t necessarily improve our resilience to climate change. The intent of the National Flood Insurance Program is to encourage better building codes to protect floodplains and wetlands, but critics contend that by doing so, it enables development in those sensitive areas, threatening riparian wildlife. Further, the program is mired in debt ($17 billion before Sandy). To truly address climate risk, it may need more than just new maps.

So how soon will FEMA respond to President Obama’s executive order? If the time it took them to respond to requests for comment on this story is any indication, the answer may be: Not soon enough.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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