5 Ways Congress Can Help To Rebuild Stronger and Safer Communities After Harvey

Mariko Shimmi, right, helps carry items out of Ken Tani's home in a neighborhood still flooded from Harvey on Monday, September 4, 2017, in Houston.

Hurricane Harvey delivered a devastating and deadly blow to Houston, southeast Texas, and parts of Louisiana. The storm unleashed unprecedented amounts of rain—more than 50 inches in some areas—and caused catastrophic flooding that consumed communities, including the entire Houston area. As of this writing, the storm has killed at least 70 people, destroyed or damaged more than 185,000 homes, and inflicted economic costs that could rise as high as $190 billion.

It will take years for many Texas and Louisiana residents to recover from the storm. For others, recovery will never happen unless federal, state, and local officials channel disaster assistance into rebuilding strategies that will reduce the costs, health impacts, and loss of life brought on by floods and extreme weather events. Scientists are confident that climate change will only intensify storms like Harvey in the future, as sea level rise contributes to bigger storm surges, warmer oceans fuel more powerful winds, and rising air temperatures trigger heavier downpours.

To prepare for these impending threats, federal, state, and local officials should insist that Harvey rebuilding aid supports a rethink and redesign of communities and infrastructure to reduce flood, extreme weather, and pollution risks, particularly for communities that struggle to make ends meet and communities of color that are exposed to these threats at a disproportionately high rate. In other words, it is not enough to simply build back; policymakers should also aim to build better, in ways that make communities healthier and more resilient to future disasters.

The good news for Texas is that communities across the country have already begun pursuing policies that make them safer, stronger, and more storm-ready. After Superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard, with particularly devastating effects in New York and New Jersey, policymakers at all levels of government and in both political parties took steps to honestly assess the risks of future extreme weather events and climate change, to support urban planning innovations that improve access to economic opportunities, and to rebuild using smarter and more resilient project designs so that when the next storm hits, the region will be better prepared to withstand the impacts.

To do the same in Texas and Louisiana, Congress must embrace the following five principles for smart and resilient disaster recovery and rebuilding assistance.

1. Ensure Harvey rebuilding projects are designed to last

Congress should require that disaster rebuilding projects funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies be designed to withstand future extreme weather, flooding and other climate change risks. Following Superstorm Sandy, federally funded projects were required to be raised at least one foot above the 100-year flood elevation. In just the last three years, Houston has suffered three 500-year floods—events that have a 1 in 500 chance of happening in any given year—so Congress should consider going even further than the Sandy rebuilding requirements as it appropriates Harvey disaster aid. For example, Congress should require all federally supported rebuilding projects to be elevated two feet above the 100-year flood level and three feet for critical infrastructure, like hospitals and police and fire stations. This requirement would protect communities and critical infrastructure from water that reaches the 500-year flood elevation. In addition, all rebuilding project designs should be based on updated flood maps.

Finally, Congress should further amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which unlocks federal funds and coordination following a disaster, to require that all reconstruction funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is designed to better withstand future extreme weather and other climate change impacts. By failing to take these actions, Congress risks wasting taxpayer dollars on continually rebuilding vulnerable structures in the aftermath of future disasters.

2. Give decisionmakers ready access to accurate, updated flood risk data

Congress should significantly expand resources for FEMA to update flood maps nationwide, including in Texas and Louisiana, so that local and state officials, businesses, and residents understand current and future flood risks tied to sea-level rise, more extreme weather, and heavier downpours. These updated flood maps are essential for decisionmakers to keep people, critical infrastructure, homes, and businesses out of harm’s way—and to make smart rebuilding choices in Houston and other areas affected by Harvey.

Following Superstorm Sandy, relief funds helped the federal government create a mapping tool showing future risks of flooding and sea level rise that can be expected to result from climate change. New York and New Jersey officials successfully used the tool to help make decisions during the rebuilding process. Congress should consider supporting a similar tool as part of the Harvey relief package.

3. Prioritize rebuilding and improving communities that face disproportionately high flooding and pollution risks

Communities of color and neighborhoods where families live paycheck-to-paycheck have been disproportionately affected by Harvey. Many residents of these communities do not have the money or the means to evacuate, lack the resources to rebuild their homes and lives in the wake of a storm, or live near Superfund sites, petrochemical facilities, or other industries that emit toxic pollution. These risks and economic, social, and racial barriers in Houston and other communities across the country are the legacy of discriminatory policies and are compounded by the new challenges of more frequent and severe flooding, hotter and more frequent heat waves, and other climate change effects.

Unless decisionmakers act, people of color and people struggling to make ends meet will continue to be on the front lines of future floods and extreme weather. Federal and local officials now have the opportunity to direct adequate resources toward rebuilding in ways that minimize future flood risks, curb toxic air and water pollution, and expand access to living wages, safe jobs, quality schools, affordable housing, and safe neighborhoods. For example, Congress should act to make adequate funds available for the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief Program, which helps to rebuild low-income neighborhoods and places where the health and wellbeing of the community are under imminent threat in the aftermath of a disaster. Congress should also require states to prioritize disaster recovery in affected areas that are within a five-mile radius of toxic pollution sources, including Superfund sites, brownfields, oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities. As of this writing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that 13 Superfund sites had been flooded or were at risk of damage related to Harvey, and at least 12 sewage overflows and toxic releases from dozens of industrial sites were reported in Houston.

4. Require all federally supported infrastructure projects to be built to withstand more extreme weather and flooding

Texas and Louisiana should not be the only states that learn life-saving lessons from Harvey. Congress should ensure all taxpayer-funded infrastructure investments are built to last by requiring federally supported infrastructure projects to be designed to withstand extreme weather and flood risk. In addition, President Donald Trump should ensure that infrastructure grant programs within the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies only support projects that are resilient to extreme weather and flood risks. President Trump should start this commitment by reinstating the Obama-era Federal Flood Risk Management Standards that he rolled back just days before Harvey made landfall.

5. Expand investments in programs to help communities prepare for more extreme weather and save billions of dollars in disaster damages and costs

Every dollar that FEMA invests in resilience and actions to reduce disaster losses saves the nation $4 in disaster-recovery costs. Congress should substantially increase funding for FEMA programs like the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, which provides funding for states and cities to prepare in advance to better withstand storms and other extreme weather events. The Trump administration, however, recommended slashing FEMA grants that help cities and states reduce the risks of natural disasters by $767 million. In the aftermath of Harvey, this move looks even more shortsighted.

It is not a matter of if, but when, the next extreme weather event will hit the United States. The record-breaking flooding and destruction caused by Harvey serves as the latest example of how vulnerable American communities—large, small, rural, and urban alike—are to powerful storms. But they don’t have to be. Congress must take this opportunity to ensure that communities from Houston to Port Arthur, Texas, and beyond are rebuilt stronger and more resilient to extreme weather events—before the next storm comes.

Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress. Kristina Costa is a senior fellow at American Progress. 

The authors would like to thank Emily Haynes for her contributions to this column.