Democrats mull merits of ‘managed retreat’

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The federal government needs to stop subsidizing high-risk development and start preparing for a future with a changing climate, experts told Senate Democrats yesterday.

Floods have cost the nation $845 billion since 2000, according to NOAA, yet the National Flood Insurance Program is effectively subsidizing homeowners in flood zones, witnesses said at a meeting of the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis yesterday.

In short, Congress needs to “plan for the future,” said Laura Lightbody, project director at Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.

“Public infrastructure has long been constructed based on historical data and outdated standards, resulting in repeatedly damaged assets, communities shut down for weeks and rising costs,” Lightbody told the panel.

The hearing was a summation of the sticky issue lawmakers face as they continue to work on reauthorizing the beleaguered NFIP. It also served as a preview of debates to come about managed retreat, as sea-level rise chips away at the coasts.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the special committee, said Congress should be careful not to “rush into managed retreat,” given that there are plenty of low- and middle-income residents sitting in high-risk zones in places like his home state.

That could result in political backlash, he said. “It seems to me it has to be voluntary, or it ought to be voluntary, given that we’re a free country,” Schatz said.

“But there may be a point at which the scale of the problem overcomes everyone’s individual desire to hold onto their private property.”

Outside of physically moving people away from areas with climate change risks, Lightbody said it would help if the federal government shifted its focus from disaster recovery to pre-disaster mitigation.

She brought up the oft-cited statistic that the government saves $6 in future costs for every $1 it invests in mitigation.

Congress has made some progress on that front in recent years, passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act last year. That law requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set aside a small percentage of disaster funds for mitigation against future extreme weather events.

FEMA under the Trump administration has also moved to adjust flood insurance rates for some homeowners to better reflect flood risk, a revision known as “Risk Rating 2.0.”

At the same time, the NFIP has been living on short-term reauthorizations for years now. Long-term reauthorization talks have stalled this Congress, in part due to concerns about rising premiums (E&E Daily, Nov. 5).

Still, witnesses said there’s room for Congress to make progress.

“Congress can ensure more resilient infrastructure by requiring that newly built or repaired federally funded projects, such as roads and hospitals, are not built in high-risk areas,” Lightbody said.

“If they must, at a minimum, Congress should require projects to incorporate future flood risks, such as sea-level rise and increased rainfall, into their design.”