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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Federal Involvement in Flood Response and Flood Infrastructure Repair: Hurricane Sandy Recovery

Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Hurricane Sandy was a reminder that the United States is vulnerable to significant weather hazards, and that infrequent but intense flood events can cause significant damage and disruption. In addition to wind damages and electricity disruptions, the storm’s surge damaged property and infrastructure in coastal and inlet areas, while the storm’s rains and snowmelt swelled rivers and creeks. These impacts contributed to public safety concerns and private and public property loss. Although the storm was not notable for its wind intensity, Sandy’s significant size, its unusually low atmospheric pressure, and the astronomic high tide combined with other weather systems to amplify flooding consequences and economic and transportation disruptions. With events like Hurricane Sandy, common questions for Congress include: Which federal programs can assist with flood-fighting? Which federal programs can assist with repairing damaged dunes, levees, and other flood protection? What are the policy and funding issues that may arise during recovery?

While state and local entities have significant flood-related responsibilities, federal resources are called in as these entities are overwhelmed and as presidential disasters are declared. Several agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have authorities to respond to flood emergencies and to assist with recovery efforts. FEMA has primary responsibilities for federal flood insurance, disaster assistance, and hazard mitigation programs. In addition to its floodfighting authorities, the Corps has a program to repair damaged levees, dams, berms, and other flood control works. Post-Sandy demand for such repairs is likely to be extensive.

For work performed under some of the Corps authorities, a near-term issue may be that Congress typically funds these actions using emergency supplementals. While current funding levels are not likely to interfere with emergency response activities, federal funds may become an issue in proceeding with post-disaster repair and recovery investments. After the emergency has passed and recovery has been initiated, local and federal decision makers will be faced with questions of how to rebuild and what types of flood protection investments to make. Federal policy makers will be faced with the recurring questions of whether current flood policies and projects are effective at reducing flood risk and are financially sustainable.

Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Midwest flooding in 2011 and 2008, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 renewed congressional interest in the suite of tools available to improve flood resiliency. A challenge is how to structure federal actions and programs so they provide incentives to reduce flood risk without unduly infringing on private property rights or usurping local decision making. Tackling this challenge would require adjustments to flood insurance, disaster aid policies and practices, and programs for structural and nonstructural flood risk reduction measures and actions. In July 2012, the 112th Congress enacted, as part of MAP-21 (P.L. 112-141), an extension and some revisions of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program through September 30, 2017. Otherwise, legislative action in recent years has done little to alter the broad federal approach to the nation’s flood risk management.

Date of Report: November 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: R42803
Price: $29.95

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