The Department of Housing and Urban Development this week put out a notice to states receiving federal funding to help recover from last year’s three major hurricanes to “take into account” sea level rise when they build new structures in flood-prone areas.
The directive appears to mostly follow requirements established in the Obama administration requiring federally funded infrastructure projects to account for climate change and sea level rise when building in areas that could be vulnerable to flooding.
But six months ago, before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the first of the three major storms, President Trump, who is skeptical of the impacts of climate change, rescinded the the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, established by former President Barack Obama in 2015.
“When President Trump rescinded Obama’s executive order, we feared all of this federal disaster aid money, of which HUD is one of of the biggest recipients, would go toward building exactly the way things were before the hurricanes, which would have been throwing money at bad decisions,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But HUD is doing the right thing here. It will require projects they fund to be built with this additional margin of safety to help ensure communities are rebuilding smarter and more resilient against future hurricanes and flood events, which is exactly what a responsible agency should be doing.”
HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan told the Washington Examiner that the agency, by asking states to describe how they will "take into account continued sea level rise,” is continuing its long-standing policy that dates to when Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the East Coast in 2012.
Sullivan said the agency is not deliberately contradicting Trump’s elimination of the Obama-era building standard.
“This is an expression of what we have baked into disaster recovery rules since Sandy, when we have asked grantees to consider future flood risk and other natural hazards in the development of their building plans,” Sullivan said. “It does not signal a departure from really anything.”
The HUD notice to states, which became effective Tuesday, told them how to spend the $7.4 billion in disaster recovery money Congress approved after Hurricane Harvey.
Sullivan said $5 billion of that funding went to Texas.
HUD distributed another $1.5 billion to Puerto Rico and $243 million to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit by both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The last $616 million goes to Florida for recovery from Irma.
The notice says states must provide HUD with an explanation for how their rebuilding plans will “promote sound, sustainable long-term recovery planning informed by a post-disaster evaluation of hazard risk, especially construction standards and land-use decisions that reflect responsible floodplain and wetland management and take into account continued sea level rise, if applicable.”
It also says that all residential structures built with federal funding in the 100-year flood plain, meaning there’s a 1 percent chance of a flood event in that area in a given year, must be elevated at least two feet above the level at which flood water would be anticipated to rise.
The White House did not respond to questions from the Washington Examiner asking if it approved or knew about the language HUD used in Tuesday’s directive.
But in September, in the weeks after Hurricane Harvey, White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert indicated the Trump administration, after responding to the storm and realizing the major costs required to rebuild, was considering replacing Obama’s 2015 standard with a new one that imposes similar requirements.
"At the time we rescinded [the 2015 standard], we did so in the hope of expediting infrastructure development in this country, which I think was a smart move, and the president did as well," Bossert said at a Sept. 8 White House press briefing. "But now we have to replace it with thoughtful building standards and practices for the expenditure of federal money that makes floodplain and risk mitigation sense. We need to build back smarter and stronger."
Experts say HUD, by asking states to consider sea-level rise when rebuilding, is doing the right thing, even if it’s not clear how or if the directive reflects or contradicts Trump administration policy.
"The Obama policy was a smart, common-sense fiscal conservatism,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington. “The Trump administration made a mistake when they did away with it, but HUD is doing the absolute right thing by bringing it back in this context."