Obama Executive Order Sets New Flood Elevation Standards for Federal Projects

January 30, 2015

President Obama signed an executive order today directing federal agencies to adopt new flood elevation standards for the siting, design, and construction of federal projects. 

The new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard will ensure that current and future flood risk, anticipated to increase due to climate change and sea-level rise, will be taken into account in the development of federal projects. The standard is expected to save taxpayers money in the long run by reducing federal disaster assistance spending following extreme weather events.

Agencies have three options for establishing the flood elevation and hazard area used in siting, design, and construction of a federal project:

  • Use data and methods informed by best-available, actionable climate science;
  • Build two feet above the 100-year flood elevation for standard projects, and three feet above for critical buildings like hospitals and evacuation centers; or
  • Build to the 500-year flood elevation.

Future updates to the standard may also identify new methods to define the extent of the floodplain.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Georgetown Climate Center executive director Vicki Arroyo said the new policy is "a positive step to be more prepared for the threat that we're already facing from rising sea levels and more intense storms."

"We have to start applying what the science is telling us, and what we're seeing from recent events, to investment decisions and codes and standards-ideally at all levels of government," Arroyo said.

In 2013, the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force developed a higher flood standard for the Sandy-affected region, and called for a national flood risk standard for federally-funded projects. This new standard addresses that recommendation by creating a flexible framework for agencies to increase flood resilience and preserve the natural values of floodplains. The standard does not make any changes to insurance availability or rate setting through the National Flood Insurance Program, but will apply when there is a federally funded project in flood-prone areas. Agencies are also directed to use natural systems, ecosystem processes, and nature-based approaches, if possible, when developing project alternatives.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has published draft implementing guidelines to assist agencies in implementing the standard. FEMA is soliciting input from stakeholders over a 60-day comment period; comments are due April 6, 2015. After the guidelines are finalized, federal agencies will be required to develop their own implementation plans and issue new or amend existing regulations as needed to comply with the standard. The executive order amends Executive Order 11988, which lays out federal floodplain management standards.