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FEMA Proposes Rules for Construction in Flood Areas

The new regulations are called the "most significant flood-protection action a president has taken since Jimmy Carter."

Tue August 23, 2016 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

The FEMA regulations provide three options for construction projects using federal funds in flood-prone areas.
The FEMA regulations provide three options for construction projects using federal funds in flood-prone areas.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency proposed regulations Monday that would require companies and homeowners using federal funds on construction projects in flood-prone areas to build on higher ground—2 feet higher, in many cases.

The regulations stem from an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in January 2015. The order requires a new flood-protection standard for infrastructure projects that use federal money and is part of the administration's broader agenda to address climate change.

“This is ensuring that when federal investments are made we will rebuild higher and stronger,” Roy Wright, deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation with FEMA, said from Baton Rouge, La., where he was helping oversee the agency's response to recent historic flooding that has killed 13 and displaced thousands.

Mr. Wright called the regulations the most significant flood-protection action a president has taken since Jimmy Carter.

Some business groups, however, are worried the regulations will drive up costs, and a number of Republicans criticized the move as another regulatory overreach by the Obama administration. The Republican-led House passed an appropriations bill in July containing language to defund the executive order.

“It will absolutely increase costs for builders,” said Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Louisiana Republican. He said 22 of the 24 parishes he represents suffered flooding this year. “The very last thing these people need is the federal government imposing a new rule by executive action that will make their recovery more expensive.”

A comment period on FEMA's proposed regulations will be open through Oct. 21. Other agencies are expected to issue their own regulations in the coming months to implement the executive order.

The FEMA regulations provide three options for construction projects using federal funds in flood-prone areas: build two feet above the 100-year floodplain level for standard projects, or 3 feet above for “critical action” projects such as hospitals or nursing homes; build to the 500-year floodplain; or use the best available scientific models which often combine flood records with other factors like sea-level rise data.

The regulations would essentially rewrite the current 100-year flood standard that has been used nationwide for the past five decades since the national flood insurance program was adopted in the late 1960s. To qualify for that program, communities have required that buildings be at or above the elevation where a flood is calculated to rise once in 100 years.

The new rules would raise those levels for buildings, roads and other projects that receive federal funds, including those that are rebuilt with FEMA funds following federal disasters. Privately funded projects would be unaffected.

Billie Kaumaya, federal legislative director for the National Association of Home Builders, said many builders are concerned that federal agencies will issue conflicting rules, making it hard to predict where a building can be located.

“How will we know what is in and out of the floodplain?” she said. “There's so many questions surrounding that.”

Others said the regulations are in line with actions many areas are already taking. Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, Wis., said 62% of the country lives in communities that already have building standards above the 100-year floodplain.

Mr. Berginnis said the regulations are an acknowledgment that sea-level rise and extreme storms are causing more severe flooding. “It's saying that bigger floods can occur and that for federal investments, which come from taxpayers, we're going to build to that higher level of protection.”

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