Clash Seen Between Trump’s Words, Proposals on Flood Policy

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By Brandon Ross

President Donald Trump promised his response to Hurricane Harvey would be an example for handling future disasters, but researchers and flood management officials said his budget proposals probably would leave cities more vulnerable to flooding.

"[W]e want to do it better than ever before,” President Trump said in Aug. 29 remarks in Corpus Christi, Texas, one of the first areas where the Category 4 hurricane made landfall. “We want to be looked at in five years and 10 years from now, as this is the way to do it.”

However, the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal asks congressional appropriators to eliminate $190 million from the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) Flood Hazard Mapping Program (RiskMAP), zeroing-out the program’s funding. The proposal, released May 23, recommended that taxpayers in communities most likely to flood—and where property owners already are required to pay for flood insurance—pay more to offset the proposed lack of federal funding. The administration also proposed that Congress cut or eliminate funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. The program provides funds for communities to strengthen properties against flooding before disasters strike.

Just two weeks ago, Trump killed an executive order issued by former President Barack Obama that established a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which would have required any new infrastructure built with federal dollars to be constructed in a manner that staves off damages from flood waters. Trump did so through his own executive order aimed at speeding up permit approvals for new projects.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimates Harvey could cost private insurers $10 billion to $20 billion in insured losses.

This doesn't account for flood insurance losses, which are mostly paid for by the government, and are expected to be a substantial portion of all Harvey insurance losses, according to the JPMorgan analysis.

Flood Maps Unfinished

Mapping and mitigation are core parts of preparing Texas—and the rest of the country—to withstand future storms, Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 29. The maps are used by local officials to plan out emergency routes and in construction permitting, he said.

“I think we really want to bend the curve on flood losses in this country,” Berginnis said. "[T]o begin to see this level [of flood damage] come down, we first have to map all our flood risk in the country.”

Only about one-third of the country’s flood risks are mapped, he said. There are 3.5 million miles of unmapped streams in the U.S.; only 1.2 million miles are mapped, a 2013 report from Berginnis’ group shows.

Based on previous insurance claims, he said Houston “seems like [it has] one of the most extensive unmapped urban areas in the country.”

Chance to Prove Approach to Flooding

The Trump administration isn’t the first to try to reduce mapping or mitigation funding for the NFIP.

Mapping and mitigation cuts are “a really critical component for communities,” Laura Lightbody, project director for Pew Charitable Trusts Flood-Prepared Communities project, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 29. “They’ve been underfunded over the years.”

“Both Congress and the administration now have an opportunity to support those words now through actions,” she said.

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