Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc in Louisiana and pounded the northeast with rain as it moved up the coast. Tragically, more than 30 people are dead and communities up and down the coast are in shambles. Southeastern Louisiana suburbs suffered from strong wind and heavy rain, a tornado touched down in Annapolis and persistent rainfall turned a highway in Philadelphia into a canal. As cities and towns continue to assess the damage and begin the painful process of rebuilding, Ida renewed conversations over the importance of resilient infrastructure.
Despite the widespread devastation to parishes in Louisiana, one of the silver linings for the state is that the levees and infrastructure built after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 protected large parts of New Orleans.
An article in Reuters noted that the “the core area inundated during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when levees failed and 80% of the city was under water, appeared to have avoided widespread flooding, suggesting the upgraded network of levees, gates and pumps worked. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the state agency that manages the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS), said that no levees had been breached and no problems reported with its water-pumping machines.”
Last month, the Senate passed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act that would ramp up spending for infrastructure resilience and remediation. The bill contains “$492 million to map and forecast inland and coastal flooding, including ‘next-generation water modeling activities.’ NOAA would also get $50 million to predict, model and forecast wildfires.” In total, the bill has “at least $5.75 billion for restoring, monitoring and researching forests, according to the legislative text and summary. Beyond money, the package also includes policies that could make it easier to prepare for wildfires.”
The bill also contains measures for watershed and coastal restoration, $11.6 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and river dredging, and money for the environmental remediation of abandoned mines. It also includes $3.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) $3.5 billion Flood Mitigation Assistance program. The assistance program provides grants to states, localities and tribes “for projects that reduce or eliminate the risk of repetitive flood damage to buildings insured by the National Flood Insurance Program.” That could entail everything from elevating or raising a home, to funding for people to relocate entirely.
The best available science and technology can help states and communities to prepare and reduce the risk from extreme weather events. More durable infrastructure will mitigate damage to homes and businesses. If President Biden wants to “build back better”, we also need to build smarter and quicker.
For instance, flooding in 2019 adversely affected Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. The base nearly flooded in 2011, and the military had plans to build more resilient infrastructure. However, the “construction was never approved to begin reinforcing an earthwork levee system to protect the vital base from the Missouri River the next time it raged over its banks. Winkler said approval for the levee construction was complicated by myriad requirements from the Army Corps of Engineers that took six years to navigate.” Consequently, the 2019 flooding “crippled the capabilities at an Air Force base that is home to the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the Pentagon’s nuclear deterrence and global strike capabilities.” An efficient permitting process can safeguard against environmental threats and ensure communities’ voices are heard without being held up for years in a spider web of red tape or by litigious NIMBYists.
Better information and removing policies that distort risk will also be valuable. As detailed in a C3 report by R Street senior fellow Philip Rossetti: “Current federal policy retains perverse incentives which subsidize flood insurance and thus encourage coastal residents to put themselves and their property at greater risk than they otherwise would if they were fully responsible for their own insurance. These subsidies, amounting to $1.5 billion annually, primarily are to the advantage of wealthy Americans that can afford coastal property. Even when updated flood maps (most of which are currently out of date) show heightened risk, government policies prevent any increase in premium and keep the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) out of actuarial soundness.” Yet some policymakers have stalled on reform because accurately assessing climate risk and bringing insurance in line with market rates would increase rates for their constituents. Rossetti outlines six policy reforms that would protect taxpayers and bring overdue reform to a policy that largely benefits the wealthy. They include:
1. End NFIP subsidies and grandfathered rates for new construction in high-hazard areas.
2. Wherever possible, transfer risk to the private insurance markets that are better equipped to mitigate risk.
3. Update flood maps to better identify risk.
4. Consider how urban development exacerbates flood risk by creating impermeable surfaces and reducing groundwater absorption potential.
5. Where reasonable, consider if natural systems can more efficiently mitigate risk than artificial ones.
6. Designate project coordination to a single entity to more efficiently allocate the considerable resources already invested by the federal government in resilience.
The immediate focus should be to help those communities in need. Policymakers must implement reforms today that will pave the way for tomorrow’s resilient infrastructure.