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White House flood order: Learning from “disasters that didn’t happen”

Updated: Jun 6, 2020


Mississippi flooding in Memphis, Tennessee, 2011

Given the disruption and cost of flood-related damages (according to the White House, $260 billion between 1980-2013), to believe that our current standard for managing flood risk is acceptable would be denying the escalating flood risk the US has been experiencing in the last few decades.  As the sea laps at our feet with ever growing nuisance flooding or as we hear of inland communities experiencing “unprecedented” flooding events, it is important to think about how federal tax dollars can be invested wisely in creating resilient communities.

During the 1990’s, the US experienced approximately $50 billion in property damages from flood losses according to the National Research Council’s 2009 Mapping the Zone. Hurricane Sandy’s recovery investments alone are estimated at $67 billion.

You may ask how we got here. Decades of urbanization in our watersheds, aging and/or inadequate water resources infrastructure, population growth and development in high-risk areas, compounded by a changing climate, have all increased the consequences of flooding.

On January 30, 2015, the White House released an update to the 1977 Executive Order on Floodplain Management that introduces a new flood risk reduction standard for federally funded projects and sets forth a process for public input on the standard. The new standard provides a flexible framework for increasing resilience from flooding while providing three options for each agency to best implement the standard.

These options are based on using climate-informed science based on best-available data and methods, using the flood elevation and area reached by the 1% annual flood (100-year) plus 2 feet of freeboard (3 feet for critical actions) or using the elevation and area subject to the 0.2% annual flood (500-year). It also encourages use of natural and nature-based approaches.  And importantly, it allows each agency to prepare implementation guidance with stakeholder input and to reassess the standard annually.

We can all agree the impacts of Hurricane Sandy were disastrous, but the Mississippi River Flood of 2011 stands as an example of a “great disaster that didn’t happen.” 

Following the historic floods of 1927, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project was designed and built over many decades based on more conservative standards that would cope with conditions well beyond the massive flooding in 1927.  It is an illustration of a federal investment designed with a long-term adaptable approach to dealing with uncertainty.

Many studies have proven the better-safe-than-sorry approach to mitigating flood risk before the storm is much more cost effective than paying for response and recovery following a disaster. The benefits of the Mississippi River system and other mitigation measures have paid off over and over again in reducing the nation’s flood losses.

But can these new standards, or the old ones truly be called “risk standards”?   Because the options in the Executive Order are centered around the hazard, they do not really consider what is vulnerable.  Using a hazards-based approach could result in “overkill” for certain type projects and for others, a gross under design.  While the option based on best-available science, does offer flexibility to speak to future conditions and introduce climate change, its application could be widely interpreted.  To move forward, we need to objectively and thoroughly consider moving toward a true risk-based standard that does not just depend on the hazard and also can be applied with consistency across federal programs.

Many stakeholders are expressing concerns as to the impacts of the new standard on existing federal programs. The new EO does not change NFIP flood insurance rate maps or floodplain management requirements. It does not change levee accreditation under the NFIP. It also does not change the US Army Corps of Engineers authorization and appropriation process for evaluating economically viable projects, nor does it alter emergency work under the Stafford Act essential to save lives and protect property and public health and safety.

The Mississippi River Flood of 2011, was a story of shared responsibility.  Federal agencies, local governments, private industry and individuals all contributed to the success by being prepared—acknowledging long range forecasting, flood-proofing critical infrastructure, shoring up weak spots in the system, effectively operating the system, buying insurance, preparing for emergency evacuation, and communicating risk.

The White House has taken the important step to reduce flood risk by raising the bar on federal investments in high-risk areas.   This Executive Order asks for your input as the implementation guidance is prepared.  Engage in the dialogue.  We all have a shared responsibility in defining our own success story and reducing flood risk.

Dr. Sandra K. Knight, Ph.D. Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2013, Sandra is Director at the Center for Disaster Resilience at the University of Maryland College Park.  She was formerly Deputy Associate Administrator for Mitigation at FEMA.


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