Summary of Hearings on Flood Hazards (4-14-06)
The House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment received feedback from civil engineers and flood management experts on the National Levee Safety Program Act (H.R.4650) in an April 6, 2006 hearing. Introduced in December by subcommittee chair John Duncan (R-TN) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), H.R.4650 authorizes an inventory, inspections, and assessments of all levees nationwide and provides incentives for states to develop individual levee safety programs.
In their opening remarks, Duncan and Johnson outlined the gravity of the nation's lack of flood protection infrastructure and the necessity of the legislation. "Many of our major cities have a greater probability of flooding than did New Orleans," Duncan said. "For example, the city of Sacramento, California has almost twice as many people as New Orleans, yet it has less flood protection than any other major city in America. Cities like Houston, St. Louis, and Miami also are at risk. We cannot treat citizens of these cities differently." Johnson added that addressing flood protection infrastructure is of "critical importance" because "no single entity knows where all of the flood control infrastructure is located, let alone its quality."
While Army Corps of Engineers Major General Don Riley offered unqualified support for H.R. 4650, the other witnesses voiced general support accompanied by a number of suggestions for improving the bill. Pamela Mayer Pogue, chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), dubbed a provision that would require the Corps to repair at-risk levees "a major problem." "The federal government should not be in the business of performing engineering inspections and designing engineering remedies," she said. "There is ample expertise and capacity in the private sector to do this."
Peter Rabbon, an engineer representing the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies (NAFSMA), recommended including the input of local, regional, and state officials in the development of a federal levee inventory program; linking the inventory with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) map modernization program; and creating a flood management technical advisory committee composed of representatives from federal engineering and scientific agencies, flood managers, and emergency response officials. Testifying on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Dr. Peter Nicholson recommended expanding the scope of the legislation to include state, local, and private levees in the federal levee inventory and to require periodic levee inspections rather than a one-time inspection.
Pogue, Rabbon, and Nicholson all told lawmakers that the $10 million per year authorized for levee protection would be insufficient to carry out all of the act's provisions. Johnson asked the witnesses to specify funding levels they would consider adequate. Nicholson recommended adding $20 million per year for the first three years to fund the inventory development, bring the total authorization to $120 million over six years. He noted that the President has included $20 million for the levee inventory in his fiscal year (FY) 2007 budget request. Rabbon and Pogue agreed that the authorization should be front-end loaded to conduct the inventory, and Riley verified that the inventory would cost roughly $20 million per year for three years.
Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), whose district includes parts
of the San Francisco Bay Delta, raised concerns about where California's
levees would fit into the legislation. Of the more than 12,000 miles
of levees located throughout California, only about 2,000 miles are
federally owned. Riley responded that the legislation would authorize
the Corps to assess all of the highest-risk levees, regardless of
ownership. Rabbon, an engineer for the California Department of Water
Resources, pointed out that the while the legislation authorizes inspection
of non-federal levees, it prevents states from using federal funds
to maintain non-federal levees. He noted that the state already has
minimal support for the maintenance of these levees, and that federal
funds are key to ensuring the safety of California's citizens. Tauscher
agreed, calling the issue "a rhetorical problem that is nontrivial
in the least." She added that addressing the state's levee system
is extremely difficult because it involves issues of private property,
levee construction and maintenance, health and safety, agriculture,
water, and seismic hazards.
For Chairman Duncan's opening remarks, witness testimony, an extensive background section on the nation's levees, and information about H.R. 4650, click here.
On October 27, 2005, the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee received testimony from national flood damage reduction and floodplain management experts regarding their recommendations for reducing flood risk. After receiving testimony one week earlier on levee repairs and coastal restoration in the Gulf Coast, the subcommittee broadened its focus to assess nationwide flood protection planning and infrastructure. As subcommittee Chairman John Duncan (R-TN) noted in his opening statement, rapidly increasing coastal populations coupled with aging and non-standard levee systems necessitate a more comprehensive national flood protection plan.
"Too often there is a tendency to do things the way we do them because that is the way we have always done them," said the subcommittee's ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), "I fear that the federal, state and local approach to flood and hurricane risks falls into this category." Members of the subcommittee seemed most concerned about whether current federal policies can adapt to provide higher standards of protection. They asked witnesses to address what policy changes would ensure and sustain sufficient flood protection under tight budget limitations. Each witness presented a clear list of policy recommendations including legislative changes that would encourage sustainable redevelopment and strengthen the Army Corps of Engineers.
Peter Rabbon, representing the National Assocation of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies (NAFSMA), called for a review of the U.S. Water Resources Council's Principles and Guidelines, which determine the Army Corps' priorities for funding flood control projects. "We are currently driven by a benefit-cost analysis that does not adequately address the human risk factor in its formula," said Rabbon. He explained that the current formula "focuses exclusively" on the economic benefits of protecting property and public infrastructure rather than weighing the costs of jeopardizing public safety. Edward Dickey, an economics professor at Loyola College in Maryland, agreed. "We can now fully appreciate that large scale, albeit infrequent, events like hurricane Katrina have economic and social costs that extend beyond the standard project benefit calculations that are typically based on reductions in property damages." Dickey recommended that, while the Corps' planning approach was "the best hope," it should be focused on total risk, ensuring that structural measures are accompanied by non-structural protection and enforced by local regulatory measures. One key to total risk management, he said, is addressing aspects of the larger policy framework, in particular the National Flood Insurance Program, which encourages vulnerable communities to merely find the cheapest way to remove its inhabitants from flood insurance requirements.
Each witness proposed that the Army Corps take a lead in establishing a national levee study, including a national inventory of levees and safety inspection to determine the adequacy of existing levees and areas of high-vulnerability. Gerald Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, noted that levees protecting Sacramento, CA are a good example of deteriorating protection standards. Like many other cities, Sacramento is only protected to the 100-year level, "a level that has a one-in-four chance of being exceeded in the life of a 30 year mortgage."
Also featured in each witness' testimony was the need for wetlands restoration and other "non-structural" means of flood protection as a critical reinforcement to structural systems, such as levees. "Data indicates that the storm surge is reduced by one foot for every 2.7 miles of wetlands," said Rod Emmer with the Association of State Floodplain Managers. However, in response to questions about how to effectively encourage more environmentally sustainable planning, Dickey raised the point that policymakers need to overcome an inherent bias in funding non-structural projects that place costs primarily on property owners rather than on the federal government.
Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) expressed optimism about working with Chairman Duncan and other members of the Subcommittee to introduce a policy that would integrate the witnesses' testimony. In order to assess the impact of such a policy, however, he asked each witness to follow up on whether there were specific projects that should be pursued, what cost estimates would look like, and what federal agencies or state entities would have to be involved.
In addition to the full witness testimony, the committee posted an
extensive background section for the hearing that outlines existing
storm damage reduction projects and weighs the pay-offs of several
future options for protecting the Gulf Coast. To access these, click
On July 12, 2005, the House subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity heard testimony from witnesses on the plans of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to modernize and digitize their flood maps. The hearing was held a day after Hurricane Dennis tore through the southern United States, raising concerns about inland flooding preparedness.
In his opening statement, Chairman Bob Ney (R-OH) expressed concern over how the National Flood Insurance Program, which was updated last year, would be affected by the new flood maps. The maps, used by FEMA to set insurance rates, could cause insurance rates to rise in areas previously not identified as hazardous.
David Maurstad, from the Department of Homeland Security, outlined FEMA's 5-year, $1 billion plan to update 93,000 flood maps by 2010. In 2003, Congress appropriated $550 million for FEMA's Flood Map Modernization program. According to Maurstad, FEMA expects to receive an additional $100 million from local, state, and regional partners by the end of this year. To date, the funding has been used to complete mapping for 1,000 of the most "at-risk" communities and to begin an additional 2,100 projects in other communities.
In his testimony, Maurstad stressed that a universal hazard program
would not adequately address the diverse community needs across the
country. In his submitted statement, Maurstad wrote, "This country's
geographic diversity - combined with its variety of natural hazard
threats - requires us to apply, mix, and match a series of processes
to effectively identify hazards, communicate risks, and reduce vulnerability."
Representative Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) asked Maurstad to address the
need to inform citizens of their flood risks and insurance needs.
"We couldn't do what we're doing without what the local efforts
are," said Maurstad. The Flood Map Modernization Program would
make flood maps available online for a small fee and for free at public
libraries. States with a greater need for flooding information, such
as North Carolina, have already contributed state funds to the FEMA
program to have their maps digitized.
Michael Bullock from Intermap Federal Services Inc. identified a
need for a national strategy for topographical mapping. Scott K. Edelman,
President of Watershed Concepts, testified that the USGS topographic
maps used by FEMA for flood mapping are out-of-date, but remain the
best available source of data.
Bullock testified that Intermap, the mastermind behind Great Britain's top-of-the-line flood maps, could create lower quality, lower costing maps for 60% of the United States in less than five years. It is unclear if FEMA will offer a contract to Intermap to assist in the modernization process.
The subcommittee adjourned with lingering concerns about federal
funding for the Flood Map Modernization Project. Chairman Ney's major
concern was that states have made varying degrees of progress on the
map digitization process, leaving some states behind and jeopardizing
the production of a national flood map. In comparison to other states
like North Carolina, Ney said that his home state of Ohio is unable
to allocate the state funds necessary to facilitate FEMA's modernization
plans in time to meet the 2010 national goal set by Congress.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff; Anne Smart, 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; and Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on April 14, 2006.