Flood, Storm and Hurricane Hazards (8-20-07)

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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 in August 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 110th Congress has continued previous efforts to address infrastructural concerns about our nation's waterways.

Recent Action

Separate versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007 (H.R. 1495), a renewal of a typically biennial act, passed the House on April 19, 2007 and the Senate on May 16, 2007. A conference committee resolved the differences between the two bills on August 1, 2007, followed by a quick House vote to approve the reworked $21 billion measure. The Senate still needs to vote on the compromise bill after the August recess. WRDA authorizes construction projects to be undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers in every state except Hawaii. The bill particularly addresses flood and water management concerns in the Gulf Coast area, the Everglades, and rapidly growing Sacramento, California. Projects vary from maintenance of former constructions, rebuilding of infrastructure, and new constructions. Despite a strong majority in the House and a likely majority in the Senate, President Bush has threatened to veto the bill due to its large price tag. Major action will likely be taken once Congress reconvenes in September 2007. (8-20-07)

Previous Action

Senate Introduces Bill on Hurricane Research
With scientists predicting a very active hurricane season this year, the introduction of the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2007 (S. 931) is timely. The bill, authored by Senator Mel Martinez (D-FL) and co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Bill Nelson (D-FL), aims to improve hurricane preparedness, further hurricane research efforts, and facilitate cooperation between agencies during research, planning, and response efforts. S. 931 addresses the National Science Board's hurricane warning report recommendations and is a reintroduction of a bill from the 109th Congress. (04/23/07)

Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007
Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced legislation on March 26, 2007 to expand the breadth of coverage of the National Flood Insurance Program (H.R. 1682). The reform of the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create an appeal process for those insured by the program as well as a program to update flood maps. The bill also authorizes efforts to make the federal flood program more visible to those eligible but unaware of its availability. On June 12, 2007, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity invited flood experts to discuss the bill's attributes, but no action has been taken since that hearing.

FEMA Renews Flood Map Effort
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has enacted changes in the fee schedules, which will allow the agency to reduce the expenses to the National Flood Insurance Policy (NFIP). FEMA helps minimize expense by recovering more fully the costs associated with processing conditional and final map change requests; retrieving, reproducing, and distributing technical and administrative support data related to FIS analyses and mapping; and producing, retrieving, and distributing particular NFIP map and insurance products. In addition, FEMA continues to change and update Base (1% annual-chance) Flood Elevations for a host of communities around the country.

Army Corps Releases Flood Map of New Orleans
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) released a study on areas most vulnerable to flooding in New Orleans. So far over $7 billion has been spent on hurricane protection since hurricane Katrina to decrease the risks of major flooding. The study states that the chances of the entire city being flooded with over six feet of water are one in 500 for this year. The risks of flooding will continue to drop as the USACE completes its levee rebuilding project which will be finished in 2011.

Despite the lowered risk the USACE encourages all local citizens to download the flood maps from a public web site and become familiar with the local geography in order to find areas of safety during a flood. The maps are also being used by local leaders to make future urban planning decisions. FEMA has also been made aware of the flood maps and is using them to create federal flood insurance rate maps. The USACE has made it clear that this report is only a start in a 100 year hurricane protection plan. As part of this plan, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) has provided projected flood water levels along the Gulf Coast and is using them to create a risk assessment model over a 100 year time span to aid in future hurricane protection projects.

Army Corps of Engineers to Inventory Nation's Levees
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. (7-7-06)

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.

Background

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.

Several efforts were made to enact meaningful flood legislation in the 109th Congress, but none of the major reform legislation became law. The 2006 version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) stalled when differences between teh $10 billion House bill and teh $13 billion Senate bill could not be resolved in committee. Many different pieces of legislation made their way to the floor following the disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the summer of 2005. Billions of dollars worth of aid were provided as federal assistance to the recovery effort, but few landmark reconstruction bills were passed. The National Levee Safety Program Act, introduced in December 2005 by Representatives John Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ordered a nationwide survey of the status and safety of levees. Despite receiving significant attention in committee, the bill failed to get enough traction to pass. Other intiatives included several pushes for enhanced flood maps, including Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2006, which included provisions addressing not only flood insurance, but also flood mapping and maintenance of the national levee inventory. The act passed the House by a vote of 416-4 in June of 2006, but the Senate never took up the bill for discussion. As a result, flood insurance, flood mapping, and levee maintenance all remain critical issues likely be addressed by future Congresses.

Additional information from the 109th Congress.

Sources: House Transportation Committee website, House Finance Committee Website, Senate press releases, CRS Reports RL33129 and RL32972, THOMAS legislative database

Contributed by Sargon de Jesus, 2007 AIPG/AGI Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on December 17, 2007.