Obama's FEMA Director on Imelda, Flooding and a Scary Future - Rolling Stone
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How to Survive a Flooded World

We talked to Obama’s top FEMA official on the future of flooding and what humanity can do to prepare

In this photo provided by the Chambers County Sheriff's Office, floodwaters surround a home, in Winnie, Texas. The area has experienced heavy flooding due to Tropical Depression Imelda.In this photo provided by the Chambers County Sheriff's Office, floodwaters surround a home, in Winnie, Texas. The area has experienced heavy flooding due to Tropical Depression Imelda.

In this photo provided by the Chambers County Sheriff's Office, floodwaters surround a home, in Winnie, Texas. The area has experienced heavy flooding due to Tropical Depression Imelda.

Brian Hawthorne/AP/Shutterstock

Tropical depression Imelda has been a killer storm — leaving at least two dead and hundreds more in need of rescue. It has dropped as much as three feet of rain on some communities in Texas, inundating the greater Houston area, and flooding areas that have only recently recovered from the ravages of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. 

The damage from this storm is consistent with what scientists say are the clearest markers of our warming world — larger and more dangerous floods and fires. The warmer atmosphere draws more moisture up from the ground and the sea, creating extremes of both drought and deluge.

Imelda is a potent reminder that the wettest storms are the most dangerous. “Flooding is the biggest disaster we’re facing across the country,” says Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA under President Barack Obama. Even with a hurricane, he says, the wind isn’t the greatest hazzard. “The water does the most damage, kills the most people.”

One of America’s darkest challenges is how to adapt and respond to “500 year floods” that have begun to recur several times a decade. “How do we bring good data and good science and good policy,” Fugate asks, “to the flood challenges we’re facing?”

On Thursday, as Imelda was slamming into southeast Texas, Rolling Stone spoke with Fugate, who now advises the Flood-Prepared Communities project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, as well as Laura Lightbody, the project’s director. What follows is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Rolling Stone: We’re seeing a huge storm inundate the Houston area — again. What can Americans can do to prepare for storms like this that are exacerbated by climate change? You have people like presidential candidate Andrew Yang out there calling for people to “move to higher ground.” Is that what we’re up against?  

Craig Fugate: I don’t know how much we’re going to have to retreat. That’s a question mark. A lot of stuff about climate adaptation is changing how, and where, we’re building. I do know that we currently are not building for what we’re facing. But the fastest thing we can do, is to get people to understand that — I don’t care how many times you’ve been told that you’re not in the flood zone — you still need to have flood insurance.  

RS: Some folks are mandated to carry flood coverage — homeowners with government-backed mortgages who live in areas mapped as high-risk flood areas. You’re saying a lot more people need flood protection?

CF: Those are not flood maps. They’re flood-insurance rate maps. And the thing about it is if you’re outside of the high-risk area, it’s only a couple of hundred bucks. Maybe $350, $400 to insure $250,000 worth of your home mortgage and $100,000 worth of possessions. 

I realize for a lot of people, you know, times are hard. But your homeowners policy doesn’t cover you from rising water. And, as we’re going to watch play out in this next flood [created by Imelda], you’re going to have large numbers of people — who were told, or said, they didn’t need flood insurance ‘cause they weren’t in the flood zone — that are going to flood. And that’s going to cause a huge financial impact to them as well as their communities. It is what’s driving the huge cost.

This is your largest financial investment, for most of us. And if you don’t have flood insurance, your homeowners policy won’t pay, your mortgage won’t go away, and the FEMA assistance is limited — and it’s probably not going to cover the repairs that will be required even to make it so you can get back to your home.

RS: Should the government redraw those high-risk flood maps to address the changing risk, to include so-called 500 year floods, so that more Americans are required to buy insurance?

CF: Probably. Part of this is just Congress funding, and FEMA keeping up to date with, the flood maps. But I think we also need to expand that definition. I’m not even sure a 500-year flood is sufficient. We’re talking about getting feet of rain. I mean, think about Houston and that region just to the east of there. They’re getting feet of rain. And this is not something that’s just with [storms from] the tropics. You saw this out from the Boulder, Colorado, Front Range in 2013; South Carolina 2015; Baton Rouge 2016. We are continuing to see extreme rainfall events that are no longer meeting any quaint definition of a 100-year or 500-year event. 

If we’re talking about the fastest thing we can do right now to adapt, it is to get people to increase their coverage for flood insurance outside of areas that traditionally have required it. It can give people some financial protection against these impacts. Right? But it’s not a long-term answer.

RS: So what are some of those long-term answers?

CF: We can’t keep building the way we’ve been building. Our building codes are minimum standards. The minimum standard is to build one foot above [the 100-year flood mark.] If localities are in participating in the National Flood Insurance Program, you have to adopt, by ordinance, building codes that new construction is to be built at least one foot above that base flood elevation. 

RS: To be clear for folks reading at home: We’re talking about building codes that raise the elevation up for homes. So the dwellings have empty space underneath that can flood without destroying the structure?

CF: Yeah.

RS: Is that one-foot standard implemented uniformly across the country today?

CF: Some cities like Nashville and New Orleans have gone above that. In fact, Nashville’s been doing it for so long that when they had their big floods in 2010, because they have required to increase elevation, they estimated they avoided about a billion dollars in losses. 

RS: So by raising the minimum height for new construction, you can avoid literally billions in damage going forward?

CF: Yeah. Problem is our data is old and the risk is changing. That minimum standard is maybe giving us false security. If Nashville had only built to the standard of one foot above base-flood elevation, they’d have had a lot more damage. The city of New Orleans, after Katrina, raised theirs. And when you rebuild to that standard, it significantly reduces the risk of flooding.

We’re going to have to start putting into law and into the requirements, to build for future risk and to use the science community to provide what that level of increased protection we need to be building to. We know that the minimums aren’t working. 

RS: In discussing these issues with Jerry Brown, when he was California’s governor, he made the point that policymakers need to stop looking to the past for insight on flood intervals, and start understanding that history isn’t going to be much help for us in a climate-changed world.

CF: Yeah. It’s the classic, you’re driving, looking in your rear view mirror, while going 100-miles-an-hour down the road you’ve never been on before. It’s not going to end up well. 

RS: How did you try to deal with these issues when Obama was in office?

After Hurricane Sandy, President Obama said, we have to start thinking about adaptation, not just how are we going to deal with carbon emissions. We didn’t have good data and it was very early in this idea of adaptation. But we said, let’s just do something that we know will have a positive impact. Let’s just double the minimum standard.

We actually put that into rule, the federal floodplain management standards, to require that new construction using federal dollars, had to go two feet above. And if it was critical infrastructure, like a hospital or prison or 911 center, and they were using federal grant dollars, they had to build three feet above it. 

We didn’t think this was very radical. We thought it was just a good first step. When you talk to most people, this is not that big of a deal as far as actual construction [costs]. But by the time we got through everything, and had it implemented, there were people that were against it. And they were successful in getting the new administration to overturn the rule. 

RS: The Trump administration, just to be clear, overturned the rule that you implemented at the end of the Obama administration to protect new construction from flooding?

CF: The Trump administration rescinded it.

RS: Did they offer any rationale for that decision? 

CF: They had complaints from realtors and others who thought it was egregious red tape. So they overturned it. They said they would replace it with something, but that has yet to occur.

RS: Would reverting to that Obama rule be enough?

CF: I’m not even sure that minimum step is even a good place to start anymore. That was 2016, now it’s 2019, and as better data has come in, as the most current climate assessment report has come out, it was suggested that [doubling the flood clearance] may not have been enough. But we’re not even doing that.

RS: Laura, please jump in here. How do Americans need to understand this challenge?

LL: The first point is: How we do build in the high-risk areas? Let’s address new construction and future events. The second piece is really thinking about: Do we build in these areas in the first place? It’s much harder to retrofit existing communities. It’s much harder to talk about managed retreat. But knowing what we know today, where our data is more sophisticated, communities need to incorporate that into their decision making. Louisiana just came out with this comprehensive statewide watershed initiative, that really looks at flooding from a holistic perspective. It serves to guide for development decisions that are hopefully not going to put us all in the same spot in 50 years, having the exact same conversation.

RS: So you’re talking about putting some flood-prone places off limits for development?

LL: Yes, it’s going as far as that. 

RS: A lot of people bristle at the idea of putting areas off limits.

CF: We have to change the narrative about not building. It’s not the same thing as not using a land. I think this is one of our challenges when we say we can’t develop somewhere, everybody says, well, We’re not going to have affordable homes. We’re not going to have jobs. We’re going to lose tax base. The reality is in many areas that we can’t develop, it’s what we do with that higher-risk area that matters. In many communities those lands create recreational opportunities, green space, parks. These are all good activities in these areas that are more vulnerable to flooding. They add value to the community. So it’s not a zero sum game. There are wonderful examples of communities that have taken that approach and actually seen the tax base and jobs grow because they treated the flood-prone areas as a resource.

RS: Craig, given your experience in FEMA what do you recommend to policy makers? We’re consistently finding ourselves in a position where FEMA budgets are not sufficient. Do we need to come up with a new funding mechanism for FEMA?

CF: I think it’s not just FEMA. People think it’s an emergency-recovery issue. It’s not. It’s where do we make our investments? And for state and local governments, a lot of that is driven by federal policy and federal funding. And if we can start bending this curve away from building the way we’ve always built it, to building to incorporate in climate risk, then I think we have a better chance of not blowing up our budgets responding to disasters, but more importantly, making sure we have a resilient economy.

LL: We have already been seeing historic investments in mitigation over the past few years. Last year, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Act that created a new pot of funding specifically for pre-disaster mitigation, because the research shows that there’s a $6 overall savings return on investment for every dollar spent on mitigation.

CF: FEMA is only after the fact, which means we have already had the disaster and the losses. There’s a lot of things we can do better [on the front end]. I would point you to the Senate transportation bill that’s actually building in this idea of climate adaptation, addressing future risk, not just looking at historical data to make our decisions. This is a huge bill that will fund infrastructure across all 50 States. 

RS: Some people reading this probably think the flooding issue doesn’t pertain to where they live. Is that naive?

CF: The two clearest signals we’re seeing in the climate assessment is the extreme rainfall event and the high temperatures, droughts and wildfires. Nowhere in the U.S. right now doesn’t have this risk in the future. It’s just hard to say when it will occur, but when it does occur, most communities aren’t prepared for feet of water. 

RS: What about areas like Houston with persistent risk of flood?

CF: With new construction [standards], we can at least stop growing the risk. And then we’ve got to figure out what we do with existing populations. 

RS: Does the federal government have a responsibility to move some people out, so you don’t have homeowners building and rebuilding on these new floodplains?

CF: The National Flood Insurance Program is probably the biggest single instrument, that either permits growth or would discourage growth by how it runs. We need to price risk appropriately. That’s going to cause pain [in the form of increased flood insurance premiums]. But we also have to make decisions: When does it stop making sense to keep paying for the same home over and over again. Flood insurance policies can either buy out that property or make some decisions that those homeowners [who do rebuild] will no longer be eligible for disaster assistance.

RS: Letting people make a difficult decision to go it alone, essentially?

CF: One of the opportunities, if Congress will ever look at our reforming the National Flood Insurance Program, instead of just reauthorizing as it is under short-term reauthorization, it could start reducing the number of families that are exposed to re-occurring, repeated flooding by either providing a better system to buy them out and allowing them to move somewhere less risky, or make the hard decisions that this is enough. And if you won’t change and you won’t do anything else, there will be no federal disaster assistance. 

RS: Wouldn’t buying out families to move them be extraordinarily expensive?

CF: But it’s already being done. The problem is the program is so cumbersome that it usually takes a year or more to do this. And for a lot of folks, if they repaired their home and moved back, they’re less likely to take the buyout. Right? There needs to be a faster process. So at the time of the event we can get the decision made that we’re going to buy out the property so families know what to do. 

RS: Are there any states showing how this can be done?

CF: Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards said something that’s pretty brave in his state. He says, you know, there are communities south of I-10 [the interstate that connects New Orleans to Houston] that the next time they are destroyed in a hurricane, we may not be able to support rebuilding there. Because there are so many impacts with coastal erosion and all the things you’re faced with down there. He’s starting to say, publicly, that there may be places we just can’t rebuild.

In This Article: Climate Change, Hurricane


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