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Flood, Storm, and Hurricane Hazards (4-23-07)

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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 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. The 110th Congress will continue to draft legislation to address levee improvements and maintenance.

Recent 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)

Previous Action

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.

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 110th 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, Tim Donahue, 2006 AIPG/AGI Summer Intern, and Erin Gleeson, 2007 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

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

Last updated on April 23, 2007.


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