WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Gulf coast in Texas, the city of Seabrook had an edge over flood-swamped nearby towns and the devastation in Houston, just a half-hour drive away.
Years ago, the city imposed higher elevation standards for buildings that were stricter than existing federal guidelines on construction in flood-prone areas. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama sought to toughen those national rules, to bring them more in line with those in communities like Seabrook. President Donald Trump, however, revoked Obama’s executive order last month.
Harvey, which has displaced around a million people and flooded swaths of Houston, has proven an early test of that decision. Floodplain experts wrote to Trump this week, urging him to rethink his reversal of Obama’s order.
“As we come to the conclusion of Harvey, we have suffered some damage to our community, but not to the extent that some of our neighboring communities have. That is partly because of our (elevation) requirement,” said Seabrook deputy city manager, Sean Landis.
Although Obama’s order had not yet come into effect when Trump rescinded it, some communities had been concerned about the cost of elevating existing buildings to comply with the new rules. But Landis said more stringent rules have paid off in Seabrook. “We feel more resilient,” he said.
Seabrook’s experience illustrates how some American coastal municipalities, fearing more intense storms and rising seas, have gone beyond federal standards for building in flood-prone areas. Those federal rules largely have not changed since the 1970s, when there was less evidence of the effects of global warming.
In Texas and Louisiana, for instance, communities comprising two-thirds of the nearly 8 million people affected by Harvey have updated their flood protection standards beyond federal requirements since 1990, as part of a federal program that in return discounts their flood insurance, according to a Reuters review of municipal codes.
Trump rescinded the Obama standard as part of an executive order aimed at speeding up the permitting process for federally funded infrastructure. It was the latest in a series of moves by Trump to repeal Obama-era rules aimed at girding the United States against climate change, which Trump has described as a hoax by the Chinese government.
Public assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency currently require structures to be built at or above the “100-year” flood elevation: the level that waters would reach in a flood that had a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
In its Aug. 29 letter to Trump urging him to rethink his decision, the Association of State Floodplain Managers called on the president to “rebuild Houston smarter.”
Chad Berginnis, the association’s executive director, noted that federal funding for rebuilding of communities hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2013 came with strings attached - new structures had to be elevated a foot (31 cm) higher than the normal federal standard.
“Thousands of structures have been rebuilt under that standard, and we haven’t heard any complaints at all in terms of it being something difficult or impossible to do,” Berginnis said.
When asked whether the administration might require post-Harvey disaster relief recipients to use the Obama-era standards when rebuilding, Roy Wright, the director of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, said, “That is a conversation for another day ... I’m sure informed decisions will be made.”
Obama’s order would have required federally funded structures to be built at one of three elevations: the level that waters would reach in a flood that had a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a year, 2 to 3 feet above the federal requirement, or at a level to be devised based on climate science projections.
The city of Seabrook in 2008 raised its standard to one foot above federal levels, according to municipal records. Last November, the city council voted to raise it 6 inches higher than that.
Seabrook’s former mayor, Jack Fryday, now works as a city building official for Taylor Lake Village, another community near Seabrook in the Galveston bay area, where he said the elevation requirement is 3 feet above the federal level.
After Hurricane Ike struck the area in 2008, most people who lived along Taylor Lake raised their buildings, except for a handful of houses, according to Fryday.
“Those five or six that hadn’t elevated are the ones that got water in their houses during Harvey,” Fryday said.
When Obama first issued his executive order, it drew fierce criticism from the National Association of Homebuilders, a housing trade group. The new standards had a “chilling effect” on builders because they would have raised the costs of any building using federal mortgage insurance, according to the association’s chief executive officer, Jerry Howard.
“The rules, as they were put out for comment, were overly intrusive,” he said.
In some of the areas hardest hit by Harvey, however, local officials say the increased upfront costs save them far more in rebuilding costs after a major flood event.
In 2002, the year after Hurricane Allison ravaged much of the Gulf coast, Texas’s most populous county, Harris, adopted new requirements that regular buildings be built 18 inches higher than federal elevation requirements.
Critical facilities – such as police departments, schools, and fire stations – must be 3 feet higher. Houston is in Harris County, but the city’s elevation requirements are slightly lower than the county’s rules, which apply to Harris County communities that do not have their own city governments.
“We have much higher standards than the feds,” said John Blount, the county engineer for Harris County, as Harvey raged outside his office.
Blount said he had not closely studied Obama’s executive order before it was revoked, but he thought it looked more like a bureaucrat’s wish-list than an actual flood management standard - in part because it had not yet been turned into policy.
“Obviously we’re not concerned about having stronger regulations, because we have some of the strongest in the country. Some of the provisions in the (Obama) act made sense, but it also had a lot of fluff,” he said.
Building officials for communities that have not raised elevation requirements beyond the federal level were harder to reach during Harvey’s rampage across southeastern Texas, but Galveston County engineer Michael Shannon answered Reuters’ questions by email.
The county had not recently considered adopting a higher standard, he wrote in a brief message. “As flood levels are rising at my home, I may be evacuating today,” he added.
Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin