We have all heard the expressions “things happen for a reason” and “no better time than the present” and “good timing,” right? Well it seems the stage has been set, by either happenstance or by destiny, for the U.S. to finally start looking at our future flood risk. Let me explain how everything came together at the right time, fairly quickly. This list is in rough order of when the events occurred between summer of 2012 and summer of 2013.
- The Biggert-Waters Flood Reform Bill of 2012 was signed into law on July 6, 2012. Among many changes to the way the National Flood Insurance Program is run, the bill instructs FEMA to establish a Technical Mapping Advisory Council (with membership coming from a wide range of professions, including federal agencies and state and local mapping partners) to develop recommendations for future conditions mapping, including impacts of sea level rise and future development on flood risk. FEMA will be required to incorporate such recommendations into the ongoing review and updating of flood maps.
- Hurricane/Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy hit the northeast U.S. on October 29, 2012 causing widespread damage and unprecedented storm surge. Places in NJ and NY experienced 6-7 ft of inundation above ground level. At the Battery in New York City, Sandy was estimated to be over a 1600 year event (less than 0.0625% chance annually). Sandy was the second most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. (Katrina was first).
- NOAA published a document in December 2012 that supported the National Climate Assessment that provided guidance, with federal agency consensus, on global sea level rise scenarios to be used for future planning. Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment gives four global sea level rise scenarios.
- The existing coastal Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) in FEMA Region II (NY and NJ) were very old (dating back to the 1980s), so they did not capture current flood risk. FEMA was in the process of updating the coastal flood insurance study for this region when Sandy hit. New still-water base flood elevations from new storm surge modeling were available, so FEMA decided to issue best available flood hazard data in the spring of 2013 based on this new data and some estimates of wave impacts. These maps/data were used to inform rebuilding decisions on how high to build back structures.
- NOAA, USACE, FEMA, and USGCRP released a pilot project (early June 2013) to develop an interactive sea-level rise planning tool that was composed of future flood risk maps and a calculator to aid in rebuilding efforts in NY and NJ after Hurricane Sandy. These products leveraged the existing FEMA advisory maps (#4 above). Additional pilots are underway by FEMA to evaluate future flood risk from sea level rise.
- The Obama administration was in the process of working on a climate action plan that laid out plans on how the U.S. could prepare for the impacts of climate change. The administration made a major release of this plan in late June 2013.
- The Sandy Rebuilding Taskforce was established after Hurricane Sandy to look at a rebuilding strategy that promoted resilience through innovating planning and design. Part of that was to look at impacts of future flooding. Their final recommendations were just released in August, 2013.
“It’s about time” is another phrase that comes to mind. All the ingredients are available now for the U.S. to really start to evaluate future flood risk. Congress has given FEMA the authority to do this now when they were not able to in the past. Federal guidance on future global sea level rise scenarios now exists. Communities want to build back from disasters stronger and smarter and are looking for tools and guidance for future flooding. Federal money for rebuilding now requires at least 1 ft of freeboard to be added to existing base flood elevations. The biggest turn in thinking through all of this is the idea that we should go above and beyond the current regulations to make sure we are resilient from flooding in the future. It has probably taken us too long, but it is happening. The future is bright, and hopefully not wet!