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Improving our infrastructure requires protecting against floods

Flooding is the most common and expensive natural disaster in the United States. Since 1980, inland flood events alone have cost American taxpayers $146.5 billion. Last year set a new annual record of 22 billion-dollar disaster events, 17 of which were related to flooding.  Unless federal action is taken, rising sea levels, outdated infrastructure, and inaccurate floodplain mapping will continue to allow floods to threaten homes and businesses.

Flash floods, river floods, and coastal floods have become more common and notorious for causing tremendous damage. In 2018, Ellicott City experienced a devastating flood and its second “1,000-year storm” in two years. These 1,000-year storms are supposed to be rare because they only have a one tenth of one percent chance of occurrence in any given year.

It is not a surprise that the damage caused by this event was significant. The initial cost estimates for damages exceeded $10.5 million, yet the state only received $4.5 million from the federal government.

The catastrophic floods that hit Ellicott City are unfortunately not limited to Maryland. Climate change has drastically affected local and regional weather systems, extreme weather events, and their intensities. Every state should do their part to evaluate the expanding climate risk they face with an emphasis on the new and evolving risk associated with flooding.

In response to this growing threat, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, has championed legislation to better protect American communities from harmful and costly flooding. The Flood Risk Management Act would codify a recent executive order signed by President Joe Biden implementing a national flood standard, ensuring a greater level of protection to flood risk to Marylanders and communities across the country.

Requiring federally funded infrastructure projects to adequately account for the impacts of climate change, including floods, is a commonsense step toward promoting community resilience and protecting taxpayer-funded investments.

It’s evident that the country’s current infrastructure wasn’t designed to withstand the flood damage experienced in communities today. The absence of a federal flood protection standard has caused America’s public infrastructure to remain threatened by more frequent and severe flooding.

Roads and bridges, infrastructure used by Americans every day, connect people to the economy. When roads and bridges flood, they prevent people from accessing hospitals, schools, and businesses, effectively shutting down entire cities.

Dams also play a critical role in flood prevention. This year, Tennessee damns will save the state roughly $1.8 billion in potential flood damages. Efficient use of dams help communities save and use water more efficiently for other reasons, such as hydropower and irrigation, and act as a safety net during times of drought.

Lastly, the shortage of affordable housing has relegated low-income renters to outdated housing that is built in risky areas where the land is cheaper, with substandard materials that cannot withstand any natural disaster. These houses are less likely to be rebuilt in the wake of a serious natural catastrophe.

At every turn, Americans are constantly reminded of the need for thoughtful investment in the country’s infrastructure. That’s why it’s critical to approach infrastructure investment through the lens of resiliency and accurately address the country’s evolving flood threat.

For far too long, U.S. disaster policy, at every level of government, has focused disproportionately on responding to crises after they strike. The resources spent on frequent repairs and post-disaster recovery are extremely costly and prove that it is time we invest in resilient infrastructure and pre-disaster mitigation — a far more cost-effective approach. In fact, it’s estimated that every $1 spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves $6 in post-disaster recovery.

A flood risk management standard would incentivize resilient building, reduce long-term risk, and leave communities better prepared to withstand and recover when the next storm inevitably strikes.

As Congress and the Biden administration look to invest in long-term, cost-effective infrastructure solutions, they should ensure that federally funded projects can withstand climate-fueled natural disasters.

SmarterSafer applauds Van Hollen’s efforts to protect American communities from the impacts of flooding. Let’s hope more of our leaders will join him and support this critical effort.

Chris Brown is executive director of the SmarterSafer Coalition.