On the campaign trail, Donald Trump made much of his $1 trillion infrastructure promises. Today, the specifics remain largely ambiguous and ill-defined, with one exception: the desire to cut away pesky layers of bureaucratic red tape and streamline the permitting process for taxpayer-funded federal infrastructure projects.
True — streamlining byzantine permitting requirements doesn't sound too egregious. Anyone who has waded through the mountain of paperwork often involved with building projects knows that could mean one less hoop to jump through, one less night of lost sleep, one less cent diverted away from the project at hand. Ostensibly, it's not a bad thing. And when it comes to lagging American infrastructure, there are few out there who would argue against fixing or replacing crumbling highways and bridges in a more expeditious manner.
In some instances, speedier is a bad thing.
But at the core of the current administration's efficiency-focused infrastructure agenda is a rollback of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, a revised set of common sense building requirements established by President Barack Obama in a 2015 executive order that are geared to protect those living in flood-prone and low-lying coastal areas.
"It is the policy of the United States to improve the resilience of communities and Federal assets against the impacts of flooding," reads the executive order. "These impacts are anticipated to increase over time due to the effects of climate change and other threats. Losses caused by flooding affect the environment, our economic prosperity, and public health and safety, each of which affects our national security."
Sometimes slower is better
Central to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was a focus on safeguarding both the lives and the pocketbooks of those who inevitably end up footing the bill to rebuild after a major natural disaster: taxpayers. Implemented to "ensure that projects funded with taxpayer dollars last as long as intended," the standard required projects to be built safely out of harm's way in accordance to scientific flood risk data or other criteria.
This way, public buildings in high-risk flood areas won't need to be repaired or rebuilt altogether using federal funding after suffering damage during major coastal storms and flooding events. Per Reuters, the U.S. incurred $260 billion in flood-related damages between 1980 and 2013.
And so, even if the permitting process was more bogged down than projects unburdened by such requirements, a whole lot of headache, heartache and spending was to be avoided down the line. It's simple, practical foresight during an era when the waters around coastal communities, contrary to the presiding belief of the Trump administration, are indeed rising.
Some found the standard to be onerous and rallied against the added time and cost required to push flood-vulnerable federal projects forward, projects including everything from public housing to hospitals to highways. The National Association of Home Builders was perhaps the most notable opponent of the 2015 order, which otherwise received widespread bipartisan support. After all, it's difficult to imagine building requirements established to protect infrastructure from seismic activity facing the same sort of pushback in earthquake-prone areas.
But as the New York Times makes clear, the rollback of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which had actually yet to take effect even though issued two years ago, has less to do with fiscal prudence and actual infrastructure and more to do with the wholesale elimination of existing environmental regulations, many of them meant to shield Americans from the impacts of climate change.
Hurricane Sandy cost taxpayers billions. The rolled-back Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was enacted so that public buildings wouldn't need to be replaced following storms and major flooding events. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Move greeted with flood of criticism
Critics of all stripes — not just environmentalists and climate scientists but many conservatives as well — have been quick to condemn the nixing of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard as part of an executive order signed on Aug. 15 at Trump Tower. They include Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressman from Florida.
"This executive order is not fiscally conservative," Curbelo explained in a statement. "It's irresponsible and it will lead to taxpayer dollars being wasted on projects that may not be built to endure the flooding we are already seeing and know is only going to get worse."
In no other part of the country does sea level rise pose as much of a threat as it does in South Florida, including the city of Miami and Curbelo's own district, which includes the Florida Keys and southwest Miami-Dade County.
Rafael Lemaitre, former director of public affairs at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), took a similar stance to Curbelo, telling Reuters that "eliminating this requirement is self-defeating; we can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will."
Trump's infrastructure plan includes rollng back Obama era flood standards. Superstorm Sandy called and wants another shot at NY and NJ.— Mike 517-5 Russian Sanctions Vote (@thedecider99) August 15, 2017
The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which Lemaitre had a hand in creating and which was built upon previous work devised by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, applied only to taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects and provided federal agencies heading up such projects with three options when building in flood-prone areas. Flood-proof elevations for new construction were either required to be based on best-available flood level predictions based on science; two or three feet above the national 100-year flood elevation standard depending on the "criticality" of the building; or elevated safely above the 500-year flood plain.
FEMA spent a total of $48.6 billion in repairing or replacing storm- and flood-damaged public buildings, utilities, roads and highways and water-control facilities in addition to clean-up and emergency actions between 1998 and 2014, prompting Joel Scata, a project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, to lay out the basics of how the standard worked:
Under the standard, Federal agencies were directed to use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, like affordable housing, hospitals, and emergency response facilities. Projects were to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever possible or, if not possible, buildings and facilities were to be raised so they were less likely to be damaged by rising flood waters.
For example, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is funding the construction of public housing, then the flood protection standard would require that the homes be built on higher ground, rather than low lying areas prone to flooding. But if no other site was available, then the homes would need to be elevated to reduce the potential for floodwaters to cause damage and leave people stranded.
As reported by the New York Times, with the Obama-era Federal Flood Risk Management Standard rescinded, the previous federal flood management standard — a standard established in 1977 by the Carter administration, well before climate change became a global concern, and amended in 2015 — takes effect. This reversal does not prevent local and state agencies facing the impacts of sea level rise and severe storms by pursuing more rigorous, cautious and, yes, slower standards if they choose to do so.
Here's hoping they do.