FEMA Proposed Rules for Construction in Flood-prone Areas

Published January 23, 2017 by Whirlwind Team

FEMA construction rules flood areas

Noah’s Ark would be doing a big business in certain areas of the country right now. From flooding due to hurricanes to the foot or more of rain that seems to occur with every weather system, floods are flooding the news.

In response to the deluge, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has proposed stricter building regulations for flood-prone areas. The new rules come from an executive order issued by President Barack Obama on January 15, 2016. Floodplain Management Executive Order 13690 required higher levels of flood protection for federally funded projects to protect taxpayer money.

Specific standard changes

The standard in question is FEMA SID #43, which became effective June 6 of this year. It is already considered a working standard. Implementation impacts all projects that have not yet begun data development. Once complete, the data must have documentation that meets vertical accuracy requirements.

Those areas considered to have a high level of flood risk must have a 95% confidence level for vertical accuracy that is predicated on the typical slope of the land. For example, the flattest slope in a high flood risk area must have a vertical accuracy of 24.5cm (FVA or NVA)/36.3cm (CVA or VVA). LIDAR nominal pulse spacing is required to be less than or equal to two meters.

In comparison, all slopes within the low-risk zone are allowed vertical accuracies of 147cm/218cm and a LIDAR NPS of less than or equal to five meters.

The standard also states that if data is not available that meets the above requirements, then new elevation data must be obtained.

Why do we need stricter building codes?

FEMA is reacting to climate change and increased flood risk. All federal agencies must update their regulations and policies to implement the new rules. FEMA states that the new rules ensure projects built with federal money are higher and stronger than their predecessors.

There have been disputes about floodplain calculations used as a basis for the proposed new rules. FEMA redrew the maps after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 hit New York and New Jersey with such force. Once the maps were modified, many communities disputed their inclusion in a FEMA defined floodplain and argued to change their status.

Meanwhile, New York City officials developed their own maps, resulting in over 26,000 structures and 170,000 residents being displaced from newly labeled flood zones. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with other agencies, are expected to release their own Federal Flood Risk Management Standard to comply with the higher standard set by FEMA. A couple of programs formed to meet the challenge are the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program.

Who is impacted by the changes?

The proposed changes are mandatory only for FEMA federally funded projects. In other words, “Actions where FEMA funds are used for new construction, substantial improvement, or to address substantial damage to structures or facilities.”

The most impact will be felt by transportation projects, the construction industry, and anyone receiving FEMA emergency funds for rebuilding. The new standards do not apply to non-grant components of any flood insurance policies and have no effect on the National Floor Insurance Program’s flood insurance maps.

What are the changes?

Currently, properties must be built at or above the 100-year floodplain to qualify for national flood insurance. The new standards have three alternatives:

  • Require most construction projects using federal funds to be built two feet above the 100-year floodplain; critical projects, such as hospitals, must be built at least three feet above the floodplain.
  • Require most construction projects using federal funds to be built using a 500-year floodplain as a benchmark.
  • Require projects to be built according to approved scientific models that use sea level and historical flood information to determine flood risk.

Louisiana officials and the National Association of Home Builders are both against the proposal because the burden would be too expensive for those who want to rebuild.

For example, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita flooded New Iberia, LA a large number of homeowners were required to elevate rebuilt houses significantly above the ground, many of them at the level of a second story depending on the home’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico.

Billie Kaumaya of the NAHB stated that the potential for conflict between rules from federal agencies could create confusion among builders who need to know where a building can be located.

It could increase costs for builders, and the proposal has been called regulatory overreach by some in Congress.

Potential losses

The danger from flooding is all too apparent, you need only look to the recent flooding in Baton Rouge, LA where 13 people died during the most recent flood event.

Zillow.com, a national home finding website, calculated that if sea levels rose six feet by 2100 as expected, about two million homes in the U.S. will be displaced, creating approximately $882 billion in property loss. Florida would likely lose the most homes (one in eight) while an inland state like Pennsylvania might only lose 0.1% of its housing stock.

The good news is that, according to Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, WI, 62% of the country’s population lives in communities that already build to standards above the 100-year floodplain. These regulations acknowledge that the sea level is rising and storms are becoming more extreme with the consequent increase in severe flood risk.

FEMA’s proposal, in comment until October 21, 2016, is still moving through the process at the time of this writing.

Flooding is as destructive as any other weather-based event and more wide-spread than some. A tornado typically causes damage within a narrow width of a region whereas flooding can destroy properties for miles around. Even minor flooding of a few inches can be enough to ruin a home. The new proposals from FEMA aim to minimize the damage to the newly developed structure by building them on slightly higher ground. Some groups feel this will be cost prohibitive for those who need to rebuild.


What do you think will be the financial impact of the proposed regulations? Let us know in the comments.

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