President Trump imperiled taxpayers, ignored free-market principles and hurt the environment when, in mid-August, he rescinded an Obama administration policy that limited federal subsidies to build in areas likely to flood.
Many flood disasters result from deliberate decisions. When a hospital or a water-treatment plant is built in an area prone to flooding and then knocked out of service by a hurricane flood, the disaster is, in many ways, a human-caused one. America can avoid such problems if we choose not to build in places likely to flood and make sure to elevate or protect those structures that must be built in these high-risk areas.
With or without the now-abrogated standards, private individuals using their own money are able to build wherever and however local zoning and planning codes allow. But when the federal government pays to erect public infrastructure in a floodplain, and must subsequently pay to repair and rebuild that same infrastructure after a flood, it wastes money and contributes to the problem.
The Obama administration standards put an end to these practices. These standards were intended to ensure that federally-funded schools, hospitals, and water-treatment plants are built with a higher margin of safety against flooding, or not built at all where the risk is simply too great.
Federal funds touch many areas of life. The Defense Department builds and maintains military facilities around the world. The Environmental Protection Agency helps pay for drinking- and waste-water projects. The Transportation Department helps to build roads, transit lines, and airports. The Department of Housing and Urban Development helps build public housing. Dozens of federal agencies contribute to buildings on college campuses.
The list goes on. When disasters strike, federal funds flow in to rebuild almost every manner of public facility.
The flood protection standards would have required infrastructure projects that receive federal funding be designed to account for these increasing flooding risks, and therefore less likely to require disaster assistance in the future. In coastal areas, the flood-protection standards would have allowed agencies to factor in erosion, land-loss caused by levee projects, changes in the levels of the continental plates, and rising sea levels. This would ensure a federally-funded project that appears to be flood-safe now won't be inundated in a few years.
Now that the White House has rescinded these standards, federal agencies are once again free to spend taxpayer dollars on projects at significant risk of flooding. In the aftermath of future floods, the federal government will continue to pay billions to rebuild these projects in the same vulnerable place and in the same vulnerable ways.
This isn't a theoretical. The federal government already spends huge sums rebuilding in the wake of flood disasters. Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent at least $278 billion on disaster rebuilding and recovery efforts, with floods being the most common type of disaster in the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency alone spent more than $26 billion between 1998 and 2014 just to rebuild roads, bridges, treatment plants, schools and other types of public buildings in the wake of flooding.
Our three organizations represent very different perspectives and constituencies — a taxpayer watchdog, a free-market think-tank, and an environmental organization. Yet, we all agree that President Trump has done the nation a great disservice by killing off federal flood protection standards.
The surest way to avoid a disaster is to not create one. Every time the federal government pays to build in harm's way, it creates a potential disaster — one the nation will pay to rebuild again and again with each subsequent flood. The more the federal government places its investments in harm's way, the more likely private development will follow, increasing the potential for environmental degradation and flood damages.
The federal flood protection standards would have steered federal infrastructure investments toward higher ground. Instead, President Trump has chosen to take us down a low road — and a very expensive one at that.
Robert Moore is a senior analyst in the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Eli Lehrer is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog, and president of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. Steve Ellis is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.
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