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White House: Construction in Coastal Areas Must Factor in Climate Change

Move could make Jersey Shore communities less vulnerable to damage from storms like Hurricane Sandy


President Barack Obama has issued an executive order directing all government agencies handing out federal aid to incorporate stricter building requirements that take sea-level rise into account. The move is aimed at making residents in coastal areas safer from storms like Sandy, as well as ensuring that taxpayer money is spent wisely.

Planners and environmentalists have long lamented that the FEMA flood maps -- which dictated the construction standards for Sandy victims rebuilding along the coast -- only considered historical flood damage in requiring them to build to the 100-year flood height (a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring annually), but did not take into account future risks pertaining to climate change or potentially more severe storms. Most other government agencies similarly failed to incorporate climate predictions in their planning efforts.

As such, Friday’s announcement is being viewed as an important policy shift, with one FEMA official tweeting that it’s “the most significant action by a president to address the flood resilience of the nation” in nearly 40 years. Policy observers here in New Jersey also said they’re thrilled by the news.

While it won’t affect federal flood insurance standards or rates, Friday’s announcement will affect homeowners who receive federal funding through the Small Business Administration or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new homes along the coast or conduct substantial repairs after future disasters. Effectively, the order means they’ll have to elevate at least 2 feet above the the current FEMA requirements. Alternatively, they have to build to the more restrictive 500-year flood elevation (defined by the height that floodwaters would reach during a more severe storm that has a 0.2-percent annual chance) or use another method “informed by best-available, actionable climate science.”

Towns and cities that use federal money to build roads and other infrastructure in flood zones will face similar requirements, and the regulations for critical facilities like hospitals and evacuation centers will be even more stringent, mandating an additional 3 feet above the 100-year floodplain.

The order does not apply to preexisting structures or infrastructure unless they’re substantially damaged in a subsequent natural disaster, and officials say it should not affect the spending of Sandy aid money.

The new standard has been in the works for the past year, and it fulfills recommendations of both the president’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and his Climate Action Plan in ensuring that federally funded projects are built to better withstand future storms and last as long as they are intended to last. It comes days after the release of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that warned of the impact of sea level rise, including a particular focus on flooding threats to the New York-New Jersey harbor estuary and New Jersey’s back bays.

The announcement was welcomed by John Miller, Legislative Committee Chair at the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management.

“This is a huge step in the right direction, avoiding future losses,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing in this executive order is some of the learning that came out of the Sandy experience and acknowledging future conditions are not going to necessarily be what we had in the past. If the federal government is investing in these things, what they’re saying is, ‘We want more insurance in what we’re building. We want a higher factor of safety in its construction.’”

Chris Sturm, senior policy director at the planning-advocacy group NJ Future, called it a “commonsense update that shows that the federal government is catching up to our new understanding of flood risks.”

“You hear all the time that people are building to higher elevations than is required because the marginal cost is not very big,” she added. “So it’s only prudent to make sure while you’re doing it that you’re doing it right.”

Indeed, a study commissioned by FEMA several years ago found that the cost of raising a home a few additional feet at the time of initial construction only adds up to 1 percent to the overall building cost for each extra foot the structure is raised. So while the new standard could provide magnitudes of added safety and cost-savings over the long-run, officials say it won’t actually cost homeowners that much more to implement.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers -- the national group to which Miller belongs -- also issued a news release saying it supported the Obama administration’s efforts.

“To ignore the rising trends in flood damages -- now exceeding $10 billion per year -- and stay with the status quo [would be] to accept that it is better to repeatedly waste taxpayer money repairing flood-damaged facilities that are not resilient to future flood risks,” it said.

According to Professor Richard Lathrop, who runs the Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at the Rutgers Climate Institute (and who stated he was not speaking on behalf of the university or any of his colleagues), scientists have calculated an 85 percent chance that sea levels along the Jersey Shore will rise more than one foot by the middle of the century, and an 8 percent chance that they could exceed two feet. So he noted the new federal standards are within the bounds of the higher end of those projections.

“However, for certain types of infrastructure, decision-makers may want to take a longer-term view and plan for the even higher sea levels projected for 2100,” he said. By that time, scientists predict waters could rise as much as three-and-a-half feet higher than current levels.

“Our building stock is lasting for 150 years for residential, single-family structures, so what we build now will have to last for many years ahead,” Miller agreed. He noted these are merely minimum standards, and that communities and utilities that think they’re not high enough will always have the option of enforcing even stricter requirements, a move that would be encouraged by the federal government.

Prior to this announcement, 10 municipalities along New Jersey’s coast had already enacted local ordinances requiring that two extra feet be included in all new flood-zone construction, and Tuckerton and Monmouth Beach currently require a 3-foot buffer.

While the announcement was made on Friday, it will not take effect for several months. The White House is gathering public comments over the next 60 days, and individual government agencies will then be given time to determine how to incorporate the new standard into their own rules and regulations, so the precise mechanics of how it will be implemented have yet to be determined.

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