Flood Hazards (4-24-06)
Floods are among the most frequent and costly natural disasters in
terms of human hardship and economic loss - 75 percent of federal
disaster declarations are related to flooding. Property damage from
flooding totals over $5 billion in the United States each year. Flooding
can cause devastation in all 50 states and typically results from
large weather systems generating prolonged rainfall. Other causes
of flooding include locally intense thunderstorms, snowmelt, ice jams,
and dam or levee failures. Flood safety infrastructure has become
the subject of increased Congressional attention following Hurricane
Katrina's strike on the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Katrina's intense
winds caused the failure of the levees protecting New Orleans, resulting
in flooding of 80 percent of the city, numerous deaths, and billions
of dollars of property damage. As a result, the 109th Congress has
begun drafting legislation to address levee improvements and maintenance.
The full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
met on June 28 to markup H.R. 4650, a bill to inventory the nation's
levees. This bill would require the Army Corps of Engineers to create
a list of levees and provide information about their condition, vulnerability,
age, structure, and other characteristics related to the safety and
operation of the levee. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) cited the need
for federal review of levees. "The levees I saw near New Orleans
were only as wide as my thumb to my little finger
there is seepage under the levee walls, [which may] soon lead to another
catastrophic event," he said. This program would be the first
federal initiative to gauge the quality of levees. H.R. 4650 also
creates incentives for states to create a similar program, and for
a national board to create standards of rating and cataloging levees.
"As the experience in Louisiana from Katrina shows us, there
has never been a complete adequate review of the nation's levees,"
said Rep. John Duncan (R-TN).
An amendment sponsored by Duncan allows private sector review of
levee standards and reviews, and increased appropriations from $10
million per year to $15 million per year from 2007 to 2012. The amendment
passed, followed by the passing of the bill as amended by voice vote.
H.R. 4650 is now ready to be considered by the full House. The Senate
includes the program in the Gulf Coast Infrastructure Redevelopment
and Recovery Act of 2005 (S.1836), which is currently awaiting action
in the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Flood Insurance Act with Mapping, Levee Provisions
Passed in House Committee
The Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2006 (H.R.4973)
was passed by a voice vote in the House Committee on Financial Services
on March 16, 2006. In addition to its financial components, the act
includes several of the provisions from the National Flood Mapping
Act of 2005 (S.2005),
introduced by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) in November. Specifically,
it contains a provision requiring the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) to review, update, and maintain flood program maps,
floodplain information, and flood risk zones, and authorizes $300
million per year for these activities for fiscal years 2007 through
2012. It also requires FEMA to maintain a national levee inventory.
The legislation is now ready for consideration by the full House.
Feingold, McCain Introduce Water Resources Planning
and Modernization Act
Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced
legislation on February 15, 2006 to minimize flood risks and modernize
water resources planning by the Army Corps of Engineers. "Modernizing
how the Corps plans, designs and carries out projects will ensure
more responsible use of taxpayer dollars while also protecting our
natural resources," Feingold stated in a press release accompanying
The Water Resources Planning and Modernization Act of 2006 (S.2288)
would require the Water Resources Council to issue "a report
describing the vulnerability of the United States to damage from flooding
and related storm damage, including the risk to human life, the risk
to property, and the comparative risks faced by different regions
of the country." The legislation also instructs the Army Corps
of Engineers to give priority to flood damage reduction projects that
address the most vulnerable flood-prone areas as identified in the
report, do not encourage development or activity in flood-prone areas,
avoid adverse environmental impacts, and significantly increase human
safety, economic activity, property protection, or ecosystem sustainability.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has not yet taken
action on S.2288.
National Levee Safety Program Act Introduced in House
On December 22, 2005, House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee
on Water Resources and the Environment Chair John Duncan, Jr. (R-TN)
and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced the National
Levee Safety Program Act of 2005 (H.R.4650).
The act authorizes an inventory, inspections, and assessments of all
levees nationwide and provides incentives for states to develop individual
levee safety programs. It authorizes $10 billion per year for fiscal
years 2007 through 2012 to carry out these activities.
The bill is modeled after the National
Dam Safety Program Act that became a public law in 1996. It would
require the Army Corps of Engineers to inspect every levee that could
potentially pose a significant threat to human life or property, with
the goal of creating a published inventory of the condition of all
levees. Other provisions in H.R.4650 include establishing a National
Levee Safety Review Board to monitor levee safety, developing federal
levee safety guidelines, aiding states in the development of levee
safety programs, and conducting technical research on levee construction
A key goal of H.R.4650 is to facilitate communication between responsible
federal agencies about potential flood and levee hazards. To this
end, the act would establish an Interagency Committee on Levee Safety
composed of representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the
Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of the Interior (DOI),
and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The National Levee
Safety Review Board would include members from these four agencies
as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state levee
safety agencies, and the private sector.
The Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment began holding
on H.R.4650 in April, 2006.
National Flood Mapping Act Introduced
On November 14, 2005, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced a bill to
review, update, and maintain National Flood Insurance Program maps.
The National Flood Mapping Act of 2005 (S.2005)
amends the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 to improve flood-risk
zone data. The legislation makes the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) responsible for the maintenance of flood maps and requires
FEMA to post digital, geospatial, data-compliant maps on the FEMA
website. Additionally, S.2005 would direct the Comptroller General
to restrict federal investment in flood-prone areas and would require
the Army Corps of Engineers to publish an inventory of U.S. levees.
No action has been taken on the bill, which was referred in November
to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
Since the 1960s, federal legislation has primarily targeted flood
hazards from an insurance perspective. The National Flood Insurance
was created in 1968 to decrease federal expenditures on disaster relief
and create disincentives for developing land in flood-prone areas.
NFIP requires property owners in flood-risk communities to buy flood
insurance. Insurance premiums are then used to compensate victims
of flood damage. Additionally, differential premium costs create incentives
for developers to adopt newer building standards that reduce potential
NFIP insurance rates are set by determining a region's risk of flood.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
uses flood maps to assess the likelihood of regional flooding. Areas
that have a one percent annual chance of flooding, a standard known
as "the 100-year flood," are designated Special Flood Hazard
Areas (SFHA) and required to participate in NFIP. For the past several
years, flood insurance legislation has targeted updating, modernizing,
and digitizing FEMA's flood maps.
The second focus of flood hazard reduction legislation has been on
mitigation. On June 30, 2004, President Bush signed the Bunning-Bereuter-Blumenauer
Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004 (FIRA)
into law. FIRA authorized a transfer of $90 million per year from
the National Flood Insurance Fund into the National Flood Mitigation
Fund. Mitigation projects covered by the fund include elevating, relocating,
flood-proofing, or demolishing insured structures and acquiring property
in flood-prone areas.
Recent mitigation efforts have begun to address flood control infrastructure,
primarily through levees and dams. Following the devastating flooding
caused by levee failures during Hurricane Katrina, there has been
mounting concern that the nation's roughly 15,000 miles of levees
are antiquated and poorly maintained. It has also become clear that
thousands of miles of levees have been built and maintained by entities
besides the Army Corps of Engineers, including other federal agencies,
states, towns, farmers, and landowners. Little is known about the
quantity or condition of these levees, or about the risks that would
be incurred if they fail. Legislation in the 109th Congress seeks
to address this problem.
Sources: House Transportation Committee website, Senate press
releases, CRS Reports RL33129 and RL32972, THOMAS legislative database
Contributed by Jenny Fisher 2006 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern, and Tim
Donahue, 2006 AIPG/AGI Intern
Please send any comments or requests
for information to AGI Government Affairs
Last updated on April 24, 2006.