Flood Hazards (4-24-06)

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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.

Recent Action

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…In Sacramento, 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.

Previous Action

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 legislation.

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 and management.

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 hearings 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 Program (NFIP) 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 flood damage.

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 Program.

Last updated on April 24, 2006.