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White House launches climate initiatives to arm communities against floods, extreme weather

FEMA is seeking public input on revising federal flood standards, which have not been meaningfully changed in 45 years

The Schuylkill River flooded the Manayunk section of Philadelphia in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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The White House announced Tuesday that it would work to revise building standards for flood-prone communities across the country in the face of climate change, while launching tools to make climate information more accessible to the public.

The move is part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to push the United States to reckon with the costs of global warming by factoring in the long-term consequences of decisions being made today.

“As our communities and companies grapple with climate risk, we need to arm them with better climate data — empowering decision-makers across our country and economy with information and insights on how to operate in our ‘new normal,’ ” said Ali Zaidi, White House deputy national climate adviser, in a statement.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a request for information Tuesday to guide how it would update the National Flood Insurance Program’s flood plain management standards, which have not been changed substantially since 1976. It is also seeking input on better protecting the habitats and populations of threatened and endangered species in the face of these risks.

People who never considered themselves at risk from climate change are waking up to floods and fires. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

The agency said it will gather public comments “to inform potential revisions that protect households from flood damage, make communities more resilient, and reduce a major source of financial risk to the country,” according to the White House.

The program requires communities to adopt these standards, which are intended to reduce flood damage to properties, as a condition of eligibility for federal flood insurance.

Despite the increasing risks, some flood-prone communities have continued unchecked development, which updated standards could halt.

Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth: How the city’s development may have contributed to devastating flooding

FEMA’s request for input comes less than two weeks after the agency raised rates for many homeowners living in flood-prone areas, factoring climate risk into its policy premiums for the first time. The future impacts could be large; a report from the First Street Foundation released Monday showed that the effects of climate change will place 1.2 million additional residential properties at serious risk of flooding over the next 30 years.

Some states and localities have developed their own flood mapping to guide building policies; a July report from the Government Accountability Office found that many of FEMA’s flood-plain maps are outdated and do not reflect how climate change may affect flood risk.

The price of living near the shore is already high. It’s about to go through the roof.

The effort to change the way American cities and towns build in the face of floods coincides with an escalation in damage from these storms, which have grown more intense with rising temperatures.

Since the 1980s, flood- and storm-related disasters have caused $1.7 trillion of damage — with more than a third of that occurring in the past five years. Forty years ago, the United States experienced a $2 billion weather disaster roughly annually; in the past decade, it has experienced an average of 10 a year.

The federal flood program has spent more than $69 billion on insurance claims since 1973, with half of that paid in the past 12 years.

Already, 18 weather disasters costing at least $1 billion each have hit the U.S. this year

Tropical storms and hurricanes inflicted their heaviest damage and their highest death toll over the past four decades. Hurricane Ida has been the most expensive disaster this year, with initial damage estimates at $64.5 billion — making it the fifth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

“It is important to review these standards, since climate change is escalating flood risk in many places around the country,” said Carolyn Kousky, executive director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. “Since our development is very long-lived, it is critical that our building standards consider future increases in risk instead of being backward looking.”

The federal government’s current minimum flood plain requirements include obtaining a determination of whether construction will be in a flood plain, and ensuring that homes and nonresidential structures in high-risk areas are above certain flood levels or have watertight flood-proofing. The requirements also typically prohibit construction on some floodways and include additional measures to protect buildings in coastal areas against waves and storm surges.

However, many of these standards are based on outdated building codes and flood plain maps. In January, the Association of State Floodplain Management and the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted a petition with recommendations to revise FEMA flood plain management.

The petition called on the agency to improve flood mapping and strengthen minimum standards, such as increasing the elevations at which homes in high-risk regions are built. FEMA has published excerpts of the report, but it has not yet adopted the recommendations as the agency’s flood plain management standards.

The announcement is one of several the White House is making Tuesday as part of a Climate and Equity Roundtable in Detroit hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, which awarded $171 million of new climate research grants as part of the event, plans to hold additional roundtables across the country to hear recommendations on improving its services and products for communities.

The administration also launched a redesigned website that incorporates artificial intelligence and better connects Americans with data, public-friendly climate explainers and teaching resources. Several federal offices and agencies also collaborated and delivered two new reports Tuesday to the National Climate Task Force with the aim of further improving open access to climate tools.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration made about $5 billion available for community projects to prepare and protect against extreme weather and climate disasters.