clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump rolled back federal standards to flood-proof infrastructure projects a few weeks before Harvey hit

The Obama-era rule was popular with both environmentalists and conservatives.

President Trump Visits Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

Since 2015, infrastructure projects paid for by federal dollars have had to plan ahead for floods and water damage. But when Houston and surrounding towns start to rebuild after floodwaters recede from Tropical Storm Harvey, they won’t be required to plan ahead for the next big storm.

That’s because on August 15, President Trump rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, an Obama-era regulation. The 2015 directive, which never fully went into effect, required public infrastructure projects that received taxpayer dollars to do more planning for floods, including elevating their structures to avoid future water damage and alleviate the burden on taxpayers.

Trump characterized his move as repealing an onerous government regulation and streamlining the infrastructure approval process. But he was criticized by both environmental groups and conservatives, who said it made sense to try to protect federal investments.

“Now that the White House has rescinded these standards, federal agencies are once again free to spend taxpayer dollars on projects at significant risk of flooding,” wrote Eli Lehrer of R Street, a think tank that works on climate and energy issues from a free market perspective. “In the aftermath of future floods, the federal government will continue to pay billions to rebuild these projects in the same vulnerable place and in the same vulnerable ways.”

These concerns were underlined when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast this weekend as a Category 4 storm and continued to linger over Houston and surrounding areas, dumping 15 trillion gallons of rain on the state. Much of the city’s key infrastructure, including roads and bridges, is currently under water, with heavy rain in the forecast for much of the rest of the week.

Obama tried to require projects to plan ahead for floods

The federal government spent about $277 billion on relief aid from 2005 to 2014, responding to natural disasters like Harvey, according to a 2016 report from the federal Government Accountability Office.

Flood mitigation projects, however, got only a fraction of federal money — the same GAO report found that FEMA spent only about $600 million on mitigation efforts in the same time span.

The flood risk mitigation regulation was supposed to help reverse that trend. While elevating structures would cost more money upfront, the Obama administration reasoned they would save taxpayers more in the long run, so they wouldn’t have to keep shelling out money to rebuild destroyed buildings. Flood mitigation has a 4-1 payback, experts say.

So the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard tried to reduce flood risk with a three-pronged approach:

  • It encouraged new projects to be built on higher ground, away from flood-prone areas.
  • New infrastructure projects also had to be flood-proofed — new roads and railways would have to be 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation standard and new hospitals 3 feet above.
  • Infrastructure projects also had the option to build to standards so they would be safe from a 500-year flood — an extreme but low-probability event on the scale of Hurricane Harvey.

No federal projects were ever built with the new standards, because it took years to go through the required public comment process before the rules were finalized. As federal agencies like FEMA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development were waiting for final approval, Trump nixed the standards. And without that final approval, the agencies won’t be able to act on any of Obama’s recommendations.

“Had those regulations been finalized for FEMA and HUD in particular, they would have ensured that all the post-Harvey rebuilding complied with those standards, helping ensure that we built back in a way that was safer,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council.

When the floodwaters recede and Houston looks toward repairing and rebuilding its damaged infrastructure, there very may well be state and local officials advocating for more mitigation projects. But there will be no incentive from the Trump administration to do so.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.