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Can Congress Find the Political Will to Solve Our Flood Problems?

Insights + Opinion
A 2017 flood in Elk Grove, California. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

By Tara Lohan

It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.

Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.


The program was established in 1968 as a way to provide flood insurance to properties with high flood risk — some of which is subsidized by taxpayers — and to use management programs to help reduce risk.

But Jessie Ritter, director of water resources and coastal policy at the National Wildlife Federation, says the program has unintentionally done the opposite over the years. By offering government-funded insurance where private companies wouldn't, it's made it easier to build in flood-prone areas. Local land-use decisions in some places haven't helped, either.

Most people agree that some reform of the National Flood Insurance Program is needed. Four former FEMA administrators recently sent a letter to Congress asking for just that. But legislators — who disagree how to accomplish that goal — have been kicking the can down the road by issuing short-term extensions since the program's last five-year authorization lapsed in September 2017.

Most recently the House of Representatives voted May 14 to approve the 11th short-term extension. If the Senate agrees, the program would then carry on as-is until September 30.

Meanwhile homes and communities continue to flood and the insurance program's losses keep stacking up.

"In the absence of reforms, costs in taxpayer dollars and lives lost will only get worse," the former FEMA administrators wrote in their letter urging action.

It's past time to make the necessary changes, Ritter says. "Congress has been unable politically to get to a place where we can meaningfully reform this program and address some of the underlying symptoms that are making disasters so costly in our country," she said. "A perpetuation of the status quo makes no sense at a time when we are spending billions annually on relief in response to a continual string of disasters." This spring the most destructive Mississippi River floods in 25 years resulted in thousands of lost homes, damaged businesses and flooded farms.

House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters said the most recent extension, which she co-authored, gives more time for a bipartisan bill to attempt a larger reform of the program — and that this will be the last short-term extension. Waters has been a longstanding advocate for reforming the program and sponsored 2017 legislation that cancelled $16 billion of its debt, which had climbed to $30 billion that year in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and other disasters. Further reforms promised by Congress that year did not materialize.

Mapping the Flood Line

The program's growing debt is only part of the issue.

FEMA has been criticized for using outdated flood maps that don't accurately portray the risk that communities face, either now or in the near future. Kathleen Schaefer, a researcher at the University of California, Davis who spent a decade working as regional engineer for FEMA producing flood insurance maps for California, says that the current process to update maps is time-consuming, bureaucratic and costly.

And the data that the agency does have isn't granular enough to communicate property-level risk.

"One property to the next may have very different levels of risk based upon their actual elevation," explains Ritter. Soil type and land use on each property can also affect flooding. "And right now FEMA just doesn't have that level of sophistication in their flood maps."

It's not that the technology to do that doesn't exist — North Carolina is using it— but it hasn't been mandated nationally for FEMA.

Another issue is the accuracy of the maps. If a property falls into what FEMA determines is a 100-year floodplain, owners with federally backed mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance. "Some of those maps are super outdated, and that floodplain line in some places, because of climate change, is probably no longer accurate," said Ritter.

The floodplain line also creates a false sense of security for those who own property outside of it and aren't required to purchase flood insurance but may still have some level of risk. FEMA's current system reduces flood risk to "in" or "out" — black or white. "And that's not how risk works," said Ritter. "Risk is shades of gray."

Schaefer and other researchers from the UC Davis Natural Hazards Research and Mitigation Group looked at severe flooding that claimed 13 lives in the Baton Rouge area in 2016. They found that a third of the flooding was outside FEMA's 100-year flood zone.

Extensive flooding in southeast Texas from Hurricane Harvey

Photo by Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Many floodplain residents and political leaders falsely believe that flooding cannot occur beyond the mapped 100-year line," the researchers wrote. "But nationwide, roughly 25 percent of National Flood Insurance Program flood-damage claims occur outside of 100-year zones."

Environmental Costs — and Solutions

It's not just bad for property owners and taxpayers. There are environmental implications, too.

"Subsidizing insurance rates inadvertently encouraged development in floodplains that never should have been developed in the first place," said Ritter. "Not only does that decrease community resilience, it impacts habitat and wildlife." Natural floodplains are incredibly rich ecosystems that support fish, birds, plants and a host of other species.

Ritter says her organization would like to see more money from the program spent trying to prevent flood damages instead of paying billions to rebuild after a disaster — especially in areas with recurrent flooding. There's also a lot of untapped potential to restore natural features such as wetlands and floodplain habitat, which can reduce flood risk, protect communities and create environmental benefits, she says.

"Where those types of nature-based approaches can work, they should be incentivized and given first consideration," said Ritter. "If communities can reduce their rates by proactively reducing their risk, then it's a win-win across the board for everyone."

Moving Forward

Having worked at FEMA, Schaefer thinks the 50-year-old federal program, tied to the congressional rulemaking process, can't provide the localized approach that's currently needed.

"Any changes that you're going to make to the program, you'd have to make on a nationwide scale," she said. "And people on the Gulf Coast think about their flood risk differently than people in California's Central Valley — you're not going to be able to find the compromise that is going to get you where you need to go."

Schaefer instead sees an opportunity for a bigger role for the private market and community flood insurance programs that would allow for more detailed modeling to assess and mitigate risk.

Climate change should be creating a sense of urgency for program reforms, said Ritter. Average temperatures are increasing and the U.S. is seeing rising sea levels in some coastal communities. It's also getting wetter — 2018 was the sixth year in a row that average rainfall in the U.S. was more than the 20th-century average. Hurricanes are predicted to get stronger with climate change and natural disasters are already costing a fortune — $91 billion in the U.S. alone last year. Hurricanes Michael and Florence accounted for $49.4 billion of those costs and resulted in more than 100 deaths.

"There is an important link between the National Flood Insurance Program and climate resiliency," said Ritter. Reforming the program "is a big opportunity to improve how we as a nation respond to and prepare for worsening impacts of climate change."

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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