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Harvey renews focus on revoked flood risk management standard

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The tragic and costly impacts of Tropical Storm Harvey have renewed criticism and concern over President Donald Trump’s decision to revoke an executive order establishing a federal flood risk management standard.

The order, signed on Aug. 15, revoked an executive order signed by President Barack Obama on Jan. 30, 2015, to establish the standard and a stakeholder input process.

Laura Lightbody, director of the flood-prepared communities initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, on Tuesday said the organization was “very disappointed” by the repeal of the Obama executive order, which would have ensured that public infrastructure such as utilities, hospitals, roads and bridges developed with federal dollars would have been built to higher standards to withstand flood and incorporate the best science to minimize flooding risks.

“That really undermines the nation’s ability to be ready for the next Hurricane Harvey,” she said of the repeal.

The Obama executive order stated: “It is the policy of the United States to improve the resilience of communities and federal assets against the impacts of flooding. These impacts are anticipated to increase over time due to the effects of climate change and other threats. Losses caused by flooding affect the environment, our economic prosperity and public health and safety, each of which affects our national security.”

President Obama’s executive order amended a 1977 executive order on floodplain management that required federal agencies to avoid the long- and short-term adverse impacts associated with the occupancy and modification of floodplains and to avoid direct or indirect support of floodplain development wherever there is a practicable alternative, according to Obama’s order.

The 2015 executive order built on an interagency effort to create a new flood-risk reduction standard for federally funded projects, with the framework designed to increase resilience against flooding and help preserve the natural value of floodplains.

“It would have applied to federal dollars, so the extent to which Congress is going to put a lot of federal dollars toward infrastructure rebuilding after Harvey, it absolutely would have” had a resilience impact, Carolyn Kousky, director for policy research and engagement at the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said Tuesday.

President Trump on Monday said the administration will work with Congress to quickly secure the funding needed to rebuild the areas affected by Harvey.

“FEMA, right now, we have the money necessary for Texas and Louisiana, if we need, but the real number, which will be many billions of dollars, will go through Congress,” he said. “I think it'll happen very quickly.”

“Congress has an opportunity to provide not only immediate relief, which we certainly should be doing, but they have an opportunity to reinstate that flood policy and make sure that if we’re going to rebuild in these 18 counties that we do it with an eye toward the future,” Ms. Lightbody said of the standard and referring to the 18 counties in Texas covered by a federal disaster declaration.

Climate scientists continue to discuss the potential impacts of warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico on the frequency of these types of storm events, Ms. Kousky said.

“It’s important to take account of that in our rebuilding,” she said.