A couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era rules, intended to reduce the risks posed by flooding, that established new construction standards for roads, housing and other infrastructure projects that receive federal dollars.
Trump derided these restrictions, which were written in response to growing concerns over the impact of climate change, and other federal rules as useless red tape holding back the economy.
"This overregulated permitting process is a massive, selfinflicted wound on our country — it's disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community," he said in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York during an event to tout his infrastructure policies.
But now, in the wake of the massive flooding and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast, the Trump administration is considering whether to issue similar requirements to build higher in flood-prone areas as the government prepares to spend billions of dollars in response to the storm.
This potential policy shift underscores the extent to which the reality of this week’s storm has collided with Trump officials’ push to upend President Barack Obama’s policies and represents a striking acknowledgment by an administration skeptical of climate change that the government must factor changing weather into some of its major infrastructure policies.
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said in an interview that the administration had already been planning to replace the 2015 standard that Trump rescinded Aug. 15 as part of a broader executive order on infrastructure. But Bossert added that, given the damage the storm has wrought and the money the government is poised to spend, “It might expedite our efforts to reach coordinated consensus here as we institute policy.”
“We don’t just want to build back faster; we want to build back better, faster and stronger,” Bossert said.
In revoking the flood standard last month, Trump shelved two significant rules that were waiting to be finalized. One, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would have required that construction projects funded through its assistance programs be built between two and three feet above the 100-year flood elevation in an expanded flood plain, depending on whether they represented critical infrastructure. The second, at Housing and Urban Development, would have mandated new or substantially improved HUD-financed projects, such as multifamily housing complexes, be built two feet higher in an expanded flood plain area.
Earlier in his tenure, Trump eliminated other policies and institutions aimed at incorporating projected climate impacts such as sea level rise and more frequent, intense storms into infrastructure planning. The National Environmental Policy Act climate guidance, which instructed agencies to review climate impacts in the construction of bridges, roads, pipelines and other projects, was revoked in March.
But in a presidency that has been decidedly unconventional, administration officials are still contemplating a handful of the policy precautions envisioned by Trump’s predecessor.
Roy Wright, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, said in an interview that agency officials were not eager to finance projects that would be vulnerable to flooding once more. Although he could not identify what height level would be required, he noted that after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, federal officials agreed any new project would have to be at least one foot above the 100-year flood elevation.
“When that federal investment comes in post-event to help rebuild that public infrastructure, we should be acting in a way so that this is the last time the federal taxpayer needs to make that investment,” Wright said.
Disaster-relief funds disbursed through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program currently requires any residential new construction or “substantial improvement” projects to be built two feet above base flood elevation, according to agency officials.
Administration officials said they are waiting to assess the damage in Texas and other affected states, and had yet to determine what precise requirements they would apply to projects receiving federal funds.
“When drafting new flood standards, the Trump administration is focused on ensuring that new construction, informed by recent research and data, is built to better withstand future extreme weather events,” said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision had been made. “We will announce those new standards at the appropriate time.”
Recent federal analyses have all projected an increase in heavy downpours and sea-level rise in the United States as a result of climate change. On Jan. 19, an interagency task force issued a report finding that the rate of relative sea-level rise is highest in Louisiana, Texas and along the northern East Coast starting in Virginia — all areas prone to hurricanes. And the latest draft of a scientific report underpinning the National Climate Assessment concluded with "high confidence" that "heavy precipitation events in most parts of the country have increased in both frequency and intensity since 1901."
The U.S. Global Change Research Program created a mapping tool to help officials in New York and New Jersey incorporate projected changes into their rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy, which could be updated and applied to other regions, such as the Gulf Coast.
Harriet Tregoning, a former top HUD official under Obama who worked on the flood standard, said in an interview that incidents such as Harvey or Sandy tend to shift the way policymakers view the trade-offs between requiring a greater investment on the front end and paying for the damage that comes from a severe storm.
“All you have to experience is one of these increasingly frequent massive disasters to cause you to check some of the assumptions you had going in,” said Tregoning, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development.
And Tevi Troy, who helped coordinate the George W. Bush administration's hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast as a Domestic Policy Council staffer and later wrote a book on how presidents manage disasters, said he was reassured that several of Trump's top aides worked on similar issues during the Bush years.
“I’m glad that there’s been a conventional approach to response,” Troy said. “These are people who have experience and knowledge of handling this kind of thing, and it’s reassuring.”
There remains one major wild card when it comes to the administration's approach to the still-nascent recovery effort: Trump himself. Bossert said the former real estate developer had already started focusing on what it will take to help the tens of thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed or severely damaged.
"This is really going to be a housing challenge," he said. "What's cool about this president is that he keyed into that right away."
The industries that will play a critical role in the rebuilding drive are poised to weigh in on any new federal requirements, whether they are written into an emergency spending bill or adopted by a department.
The National Home Builders Association, which was sharply critical of HUD’s proposal rule to impose new requirements for building in flood-prone areas, welcomed Trump’s executive order. The group expressed particular concern over the fact that agencies under Obama had proposed expanding the flood plain in areas based on topography, which would have made developers conduct additional surveys if FEMA had not mapped an area already.
In October, when the HUD rule was proposed, the NAHB said it would “increase construction costs and project delays for single-family homes targeted for purchase using [Federal Housing Administration] programs intended to serve low- to moderate-income buyers.”
Cathleen Kelly, who served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2010 to 2011, said Obama officials placed climate change “front and center with recovery and rebuilding process” after extreme weather events to reduce future risk, but encountered major pushback.
And advocates for higher flood elevation standards could claim one recent victory: Two years ago, Obama toured a new mixed-income development in New Orleans called Faubourg Lafitte, which is on the site of a housing project destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. It was built two feet above base flood elevation, and when the neighborhood flooded in mid-August, it resisted the deluge.
“It’s countless money that the taxpayer was just saved,” said Marion McFadden, a former HUD official now with Enterprise Community Partners, “because the first floor was not flooded.”
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.