News Brief

‘Build Higher’: HUD’s Rules After Harvey, Irma, Maria

HUD new rules for disaster recovery funds reinstate floodplain building standards established by Obama and revoked by President Trump.

April 4, 2018

Kentucky Air National Guardsmen conduct water rescue missions in Port Arthur, Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, looking for people who are trapped in their homes.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Kentucky Air National Guardsmen conduct water rescue missions in Port Arthur, Texas, looking for people who are trapped in their homes because of the massive flooding.

Photo: U.S. Air National Guard
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has set stricter elevation requirements for the construction of new or substantially renovated buildings in flood-prone areas using HUD funds after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The goal is to reduce future flood risks to people and to properties when rebuilding is paid for with federal disaster recovery funds.

Under the new rules, the bottom floor has to be at least two feet above the base flood elevation established by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For “critical facilities,” such as hospitals, nursing homes, and police and fire stations, HUD’s rules require buildings to be elevated at least three feet. This rule governs $7.39 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds (CDBG DR).

“It makes great sense to be forward-looking about risk and thinking about the entire useful life of any property that taxpayer dollars are being used to build or rebuild,”  said Marion McFadden, vice president for public policy at Enterprise Community Partners. “We want to protect people and keep them out of harm’s way and protect the federal investment.”

HUD established these new rules just six months after the Trump administration quashed a flood-risk standard established by President Obama.

McFadden, who was in charge of HUD CDBG DR funds after Superstorm Sandy, helped develop the standard under Obama.

Efforts to reduce risk in floodplains date back to Jimmy Carter

The federal government has had standards for building in floodplains ever since Jimmy Carter signed an executive order in 1977. They require the lowest floor of usable living space to be as high as “base flood elevation,” or how high floodwaters are expected to rise according to FEMA.

Rising flood waters from Superstorm Sandy decimated hundreds of homes in the Midway Beach area of Staten Island, New York.

Rising flood waters from Superstorm Sandy decimated hundreds of homes in the Midway Beach area of Staten Island, New York.

Photo: FEMA / Walter Jennings
But after Superstorm Sandy, the Obama administration determined the need to build even higher: to base flood elevation plus one foot. This applied to post-Sandy disaster recovery-funded construction paid for by any part of the federal government. (If state or local codes already required elevation, the higher of the minimum elevations applied.) The idea was to take into consideration future risk—based on predicted sea level rise, along with the risk of river flooding and other inland flooding due to increased rainfall and frequency of storms. 

A few years later, the Obama administration took it a step further. The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), established through an executive order on January 30, 2015, required any federally funded construction to be ­­two feet above the base flood elevation. And it required critical facilities to be even higher.

The National Association of Home Builders opposed the standard because it would raise the cost of housing. The NAHB asked the Trump administration to revoke it.

Trump scrapped Obama standards right before Harvey

Just ten days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, President Trump signed an executive order revoking the Obama resilience standard.

Now, it appears HUD, at least, is walking that back under specific circumstances.

McFadden points out these new rules apply only when using disaster recovery funds. “It does beg the question why we are going to have different standards for properties that the federal government is paying for based on whether the money is coming through a disaster program or a different program,” she said. She suggests the standard now in place be applied to HUD programs more broadly.

The extra cost for constructing buildings higher, McFadden said, is “negligible compared to the cost of rebuilding them after a big flooding event.”

More on floodplains and resilient design

The Four Core Issues to Tackle for Resilient Design (and the Programs That Can Help)

Letting Floodplains Do Their Job

Resilient Design: 7 Lessons from Early Adopters

For more information:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Presidential Executive Order on Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure, August 15, 2017

Executive Order Establishing A Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, January 30, 2015

Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, August 2013, U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD)

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.