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Flood experts seek to revamp federal coastal policies after Superstorm Sandy

A New Jersey flood expert believes the state is emphasizing speed, rather than increased protection against climate change, in its massive rebuilding effort following Superstorm Sandy. The analysis comes as flood professionals try to fix policies that they say have exacerbated water damage for decades.

Gov. Chris Christie (R) has put a premium on resurrecting oceanfront highways and has allowed municipalities to dictate their own standards for rebuilding and land use -- conditions that suggest the state may miss an opportunity to craft stronger flood protection strategies, said John Miller of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Managers.

"There's a lot of signs that the pace of restoration is being prioritized above ... building resiliency into our future conditions," Miller said yesterday at a conference for floodplain experts.

He pointed to a directive by Christie following the October storm allowing state agencies to rebuild infrastructure like roads and utilities without a permit.

"Basically, 'Hey, if you want to build it back the way it was, go for it, you don't have to wait for us to approve that,'" Miller said, describing the state's attitude. "That was kind of the calling sign of, 'Hey, we may not get resiliency out of this thing.'"

With multiple disasters striking the East Coast in consecutive years, experts are calling for stronger building techniques and smarter land-use policies to reduce future damage associated with rising seas and more inundation. Sometimes that means reforming federal policies that invite future flood damage, like using guidelines that say infrastructure and homes should be rebuilt to its condition at the time it was damaged.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told the group yesterday that the Obama administration is crafting new guidelines to help improve the resiliency of infrastructure.

Federal aid may be 'excessive'

"Traditionally, as you know, projects that are damaged are rebuilt to their original condition rather than updated to withstand a changing climate and making them vulnerable to further damage," Sutley said. "We need to focus on resiliency and sustainability when we plan for more restoration."

Other harmful policies identified by experts include low-priced flood insurance and disaster assistance, both of which can make people feel overly safe in dangerous areas.

"Our [nation's] generosity has been so excessive that the risk and the perception of risk is now externalized to the federal government," said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which hosted a conference that ended yesterday.

The group brought a coalition of flood experts together to develop a framework for improving water management along the nation's coastlines, which scientists say face current threats from warming temperatures and rising sea levels. The challenge of climate change is pronounced by the coasts' rapid real estate development, which creates more damage during disasters and increases flood damage.

The group's recommendations focus on creating a "holistic" approach to water management that balances "appropriate human occupancy" on the coasts with sustainable efforts to reduce flooding, which usually means fewer structures like seawalls and more wetlands.

The plan calls for "NTSB-style investigations" after each big coastal flood event to determine what happened and how it can be avoided in the future. That is patterned after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane crashes and other accidents.

Land-use restrictions needed to limit damage

The group also wants the nation to determine the extent of its coastal vulnerabilities to hurricanes and floods, reform federal programs that encourage unwise coastal development and study the economic and social impacts of restricting land use to avoid flooding. It also expresses concern that development is overtaking much of the nation's natural areas that diminish flooding.

"If you look at economics at a whole, we are not truly valuing or considering the fact that we have resources that are on verge of crashing or on the verge of being lost," said Doug Plasencia, a specialist in floodplain management.

Climate change is a key theme in the short document. Each recommendation touches on minimizing future flooding, which scientists expect will increase as seas rise and precipitation increases.

The group unveiled its ideas one day after Christie announced a plan to use $1.8 billion in federal recovery aid to provide community development block grants for the elevation of homes. Raising homes is one adaptation policy to higher seas and storm surges. Christie also recently approved interim flood maps developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that could spur communities to raise the height of new and rebuilt homes.

Roy Wright, the deputy associate administrator for mitigation at FEMA, said there are signs that states and communities struck by Sandy are making better rebuilding decisions than in the past. For example, he said FEMA has had discussions with officials in New York and New Jersey about rebuilding water treatment plants 2 feet above previous heights. He also said higher premiums for federal flood insurance authorized by Congress last year is encouraging homeowners to rebuild better, so they can pay a lower rate.

Wright also said that FEMA is considering whether to place more stringent conditions on the federal emergency aid approved by Congress to ensure resilient rebuilding.

Coastal life becomes 'more challenging'

David Conrad, a water specialist who has been following the flood program for years, said the $1.8 billion in federal funding being used in New Jersey to elevate homes sends the wrong message to homeowners. He said the funding could free residents from paying anything to raise their homes. That could encourage others to build, or rebuild, in areas that are likely to be damaged again the future, he said.

The recommendations come weeks after the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a draft report outlining the latest scientific findings related to climate change. The nation's coastlines are experiencing more erosion, flooding and saltwater intrusion as sea levels rise, the rate of which has increased since 1990, the draft says.

Storms strengthened by the warming Atlantic Ocean are possible, and increased rainfall is already being seen in some regions. That rain can cause a different risk of flooding than storm surges: Runoff toward the coast will get heavier as more precipitation courses over more impermeable surfaces, the draft says.

In 40 years, sea-level rise will turn floods seen in today's 100-year storms into events that occur once a year in places like Southern California and Georgia. Other regions will see centennial floods happen every two years, or five, 10 or 20 years.

"Humans have heavily altered the coastal environment through development, changes in land use, and overexploitation of resources," says the draft. "Now, the changing climate is imposing additional stresses, making life on the coast more challenging. The consequences will ripple through the entire nation, which depends on the productivity and vitality of coastal regions."

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