CLIMATEWIRE | The Biden administration is finalizing a policy first proposed in 2015 that aims to protect tens of thousands of federally funded construction projects from heightened flooding caused by climate change.

Starting Sept. 9, public infrastructure that’s rebuilt after a disaster with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have to be elevated at least 2 feet above the local flood level. Projects include police stations, schools, sewer plants, roads and bridges.

The final rule being announced by the White House on Wednesday marks a long-delayed victory for environmental, taxpayer and insurance groups that have sought to strengthen building standards in flood-prone areas. It took nearly a decade and spanned three presidencies, including a period of opposition during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

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“These steps will help save lives. They will help save taxpayer dollars,” White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters.

FEMA officials said the new rule will apply to about 35,000 projects over the next decade, and acknowledged that it will increase rebuilding and repair costs. But the extra cost will be more than offset over the long term by averting flood damage that would occur if facilities were not elevated, they said.

The most significant part of the policy is a new requirement that state and local governments account for flooding that is likely to occur in the future under climate change when they rebuild facilities with FEMA money. The move addresses a long-held criticism that federal disaster policy encourages states and cities to reconstruct public buildings and roads using the same standards that led to their destruction in the first place.

“This is a really big deal and historic for us to be able to help make these communities that we are responding to more resilient to the number one threat,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said on a call with reporters. She called flooding “the No. 1 threat we respond to.”

Flooding is by far the most destructive natural disaster in the U.S. and worldwide, damaging hundreds of billions dollars of property each year. Flood damage is increasing as climate change intensifies rain and coastal storm surge and as development accelerates in flood-prone areas.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said “emergency prevention” through steps such as elevating buildings “is far preferable to emergency response.”

The policy means that public facilities will be rebuilt “to a safer, more resilient standard” and that individuals in those facilities and buildings will be protected from flood danger, Natural Resources Defense Council climate attorney Joel Scata said.

The new elevation standard will not apply to homes that are repaired with FEMA money or with claims payments from FEMA’s flood insurance program. It also will not affect FEMA flood maps that outline the nation’s flood zones.

The publication of the final rule in the Federal Register, expected Thursday, culminates a nearly decadelong struggle to require federally funded projects to have extra protection against flooding.

Former President Barack Obama tried to establish a government-wide elevation standard in his second term but gave agencies insufficient time to implement policies by the end of his presidency. Trump halted those efforts shortly after taking office by revoking Obama’s executive order to establish the standard.

President Joe Biden resurrected the Obama plan four months after he was inaugurated.

Finalizing the FEMA policy while Biden is president could make it harder for future presidents to reverse course because they must take steps beyond revoking an executive order.

The Biden administration announced the rule to reporters Tuesday afternoon at a virtual press briefing featuring Zaidi, Mayorkas and Criswell. The Department of Homeland Security oversees FEMA.

In April, by contrast, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted a similar flood elevation policy for public housing facilities, HUD merely published a news release, which few reporters covered.

“I don’t remember what else we had going on that week,” Zaidi said, referring to when HUD adopted its policy. “I can’t speak to why we didn’t hold a press call with me.”

The FEMA policy comes eight days after Biden personally announced a proposal that would require employers for the first time to protect workers from the health effects of extreme heat, through mandatory water and rest breaks.

Climate change has featured prominently in Biden’s publicity sweep following his widely criticized debate performance against Trump that has led some Democratic lawmakers to call for Biden to drop his reelection campaign.

“We’re going to keep going until we’ve done everything we can for our communities,” Zaidi said.

The flood standard is one of the first federal climate policies announced since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling June 28 that overturned a long-standing requirement that courts defer to agency interpretations of federal law.

Criswell said she is not worried about a court striking down the new flood policy, called the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.

“We have the statutory authority to implement these standards, and we don’t feel there’s going to be an impact from the Chevron decision,” Criswell said, referring to the recent Supreme Court ruling.

The FEMA policy received wide support during a two-month comment period in late 2023. The National Association of Home Builders expressed the strongest opposition, urging FEMA to withdraw its “premature” rulemaking.

The builders group said the standard would impose “confusing and burdensome requirements.” Acknowledging that the standard would affect “a very small number of federally funded residences,” the association said it feared that the government “may seek to expand its applicability to all structures — a move that would be neither wise nor prudent and would significantly impact housing affordability across the country.”

The group also opposed the recent HUD flood standard, which applies to any home that is built or substantially repaired with housing aid from the agency.

Although Biden ordered departments and agencies in May 2021 to establish their own flood standards, FEMA and HUD are the only two that have finalized their policies.

Zaidi, the White House adviser, said “other agencies have guidance in place,” which is not as strong as a regulation. “Work is ongoing to assess and potentially put in [flood] rules.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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