7 Ways Congress Could Help Safeguard Communities, Wildlife From Hurricanes

The hurricanes of the past two years—Michael, Florence, Harvey, María and Irma—have made it clear that the combination of extreme storms and intense development in coastal areas have left people, properties and wildlife habitats at risk. Many of the changes necessary happen at the local or regional level, such as stormwater management and improved zoning and building codes. But there is much the federal government can do as well to keep us safer. Here are seven ways Congress could take action to better protect our communities from hurricanes and other extreme storms.

Protect & Create Natural Infrastructure

An oystercatcher sits on an oyster reef in the Gulf. A recent study found that large-scale oyster reef and wetland restoration efforts were more cost-effective than traditional approaches  and could prevent approximately $50 billion in damages in the Gulf over a 20-year period. Photo: NWF/Kaila Drayton.

Protecting and restoring natural areas—particularly wetlands and marshes that can absorb floodwaters—is one of the most effective ways to prevent damage during extreme storms. For example, wetlands prevented $625 million in flood damages during Hurricane Sandy in the 12 affected coastal states. Wetlands, marshes and oyster reefs often provide valuable wildlife habitat, such as providing nursery grounds for juvenile fish.

Despite the benefits, current federal policies don’t always encourage the use of this type of natural infrastructure in federal flood or coastal protection efforts. Congress has just passed a bill with some language that would help. Section 1149 of the pending Water Resources Development Act would require the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the use of natural infrastructure when planning flood and storm risk reduction projects.

Reform the National Flood Insurance Program

As many as 85 percent of the residences flooded during Hurricane Florence may not have had flood insurance. Better maps would help homeowners undertand their true risk. Photo: FEMA

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is supposed to discourage development in high flood risk areas. But in reality, the NFIP’s discounted flood insurance rates create a federal subsidy for homeowners in areas at risk of flooding—creating a perverse incentive to build in places likely to flood.  The program particularly needs to address the homes that make repeated claims over the years. According to the Wall Street Journal, just 2 percent of properties insured by the NFIP have accounted for about 30 percent of claims paid over the program’s history. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the program had a deficit of approximately $25 billion even before the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons.

Congress should reform the NFIP while permanently reauthorizing it. The reforms should require more accurate flood maps, increase funding for buyouts of flooded properties, and clarify that private insurance can also satisfy the mandatory flood insurance purchase requirements.

“Pre-spond” Instead of Respond

According to the National Institute on Building Sciences, every $1 spent on upfront risk mitigation saves $4 to $6 in disaster-recovery spending later. These highly elevated homes on Texas’ Bolivar Peninsula fared better than many other homes during Hurricane Ike. Photo: FEMA/Greg Henshall.

FEMA’s hazard mitigation programs are badly underfunded. These programs help communities and property owners to “pre-spond” to disasters, by doing things like elevating or relocating homes to reduce damage from future floods. Increased investment in these types of programs would help reduce the harm—and the payouts—from future disasters.

A bill that just passed Congress this session takes important initial steps in this direction, by amending the Stafford Act to increase spending on pre-disaster mitigation and helping communities adopt and enforce the latest model building codes.

Keeping the Clean Water Act Strong

The Administration is about to release a proposed rule that would reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act, making it easier to easier to fill wetlands and build on them. Photo: Andrew Sipocz/TPWD.

One of the ways the Clean Water Act protects our waters is that it requires federal permits for any activities that harm streams, wetlands and other waters. These requirements provide a powerful incentive for developers to avoid, minimize, or mitigate any harm to done to our nation’s waterways.

Wetlands and streams must be recognized as “Waters of the United States” to benefit from the Clean Water Act. However, the Administration will soon release a proposed rule that will greatly restrict the types of streams and wetlands that are protected. Under this new proposal, it is possible that more than half of the remaining streams and wetlands will no longer qualify for Clean Water Act protections. This will leave communities across the country at increased risk of flooding as millions of acres of wetlands will be at risk of being paved over or plowed under. Congress should take action to keep the Clean Water Act strong.

Address Dangerous Dams & Levees

Boiling Springs Dam in North Carolina washed out after Hurricane Florence. The object stretching across the divide is the guardrail of the road that once passed over the dam. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dams and levees harm fish and wildlife and can put the public at risk during extreme weather events. Flooding from Hurricane Florence caused 10 dams to breach in the Carolinas. Twenty-five dams failed in South Carolina and at least 17 dams failed in North Carolina when Hurricane Matthew made landfall.  Another 51 dams in South Carolina failed during a major storm in 2015.

The Corps of Engineers is responsible for approximately 800 dams across the country. Many of these dams are being operated under decades-old plans and do not use modern tools, information, or management approaches. Dams and levees—whether federally-managed or not—that are no longer needed or that are at risk of collapse should be removed whenever possible.

Put Polluters in Prudent Places

Hurricane Florence inundated a Duke Energy power plant and an adjacent basin of toxic coal ash. Polluted floodwaters ended up in the Cape Fear River. Photo: Jo Anne McArthur/Waterkeeper Alliance.

Many polluting industries—for example, energy or chemical plants or confined animal feeding operations—site their facilities on or near waterways. The risk of toxic pollutants finding their way into our rivers, streams and estuaries is compounded by the increasing frequency and intensity of storm events

Hurricane Florence flooding caused at least one spill at coal ash landfills in North Carolina, causing more than 2,000 cubic yards of toxic waste to be washed away.  Confined animal feeding operations were also a problem during Florence, with more than 50 hog lagoon failures reported, with each releasing millions of gallons of untreated manure into surrounding waterways. During Hurricane Harvey, at least 32 air emission events and 20 chemical or gas leaks into the water were reported.

Better federal flood maps would help state and local agencies make better siting and permitting decisions. In places where federal permits or approval is necessary, the approval process should incentivize polluting industries to locate, design, and manage their facilities to minimize risks from climate-fueled disasters.

Create Clean Energy Solutions

Climate change is increasing the severity and intensity of hurricanes and making them much more destructive and dangerous. If there was the political will, there is much Congress could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to safeguard people and wildlife from the most extreme impacts. For example, Congress could:

  • Create market-based mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Fund research and development into renewables, energy storage, and clean transportation programs;
  • Enact federal forest management strategies that can naturally sequester greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Continue the renewable energy tax credits that help level the playing field with the heavily-subsidized fossil fuels;
  • Improve transmission policies to ready the nation’s power grid to accommodate more renewable sources; and
  • Support private investment in offshore wind by ensuring the federal permitting processes are efficient, environmentally responsible, and wildlife conscious.

TAKE ACTION: Click here to tell Congress it is time to step up and lead on climate! 

“America needs a national commitment to protecting communities from the staggering destruction of extreme storms. Our communities and wildlife are at risk because of decades of inaction, but there are concrete ways Congress can safeguard communities, protect wildlife, promote resilience and adapt to worsening storms, exacerbated by climate change,” noted Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

For a deeper dive into these issues, please read the National Wildlife Federation mini-report Rebuilding Stronger: 12 Priority Policies to Better Protect our Nation from Extreme Storms

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