Cochran pushes back on flood risk

Published 11:56 am Monday, October 12, 2015

By Sid Salter

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, this week again called on the Obama administration to provide additional details on their efforts to establish a new federal flood risk standard despite resistance from Congress.

That push from Cochran came soon after the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the “wind versus water” debate — legal, moral and practical — that developed in the wake of that historic storm.

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Was the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina caused by the storm’s wind or the water pushed by the wind over structures? The legal fights over that question roiled for years. Ultimately, the position of the insurance industry generally that storm surge was included in the water damage exclusion of most applicable policies was upheld by the courts.

The Obama administration has attempted to write the concept of climate change into the new federal flood risk standard, a posture that has met resistance from Cochran and other Republicans in Congress.

Why? According to Joe Scata of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which was issued via Executive Order 13690, is one of the most far-reaching federal policies on climate change adaptation.”

The new policy makes no changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, which covers Americans in flood-prone areas like the Mississippi Gulf Coast with federally backed insurance if they meet federal risk minimization standards. But the new FFRMS will apply to grants the program provides, which will impact construction in those areas.

As Cochran has noted, the new standard represents a major shift in federal policy. The Federal Emergency Management Administration circulated a memo three years ago stating the agency’s intent to take global warming into account when preparing for severe storms. But other federal agencies continued to rely on historic data rather than future projections. The new policy will change that.

Under the new standards, agencies have three options for establishing the flood elevation and hazard area.

Federal agencies can either use “actionable climate science” data, build structures two feet above the 100-year flood elevation for standard projects and three feet above for critical buildings such as hospitals and evacuation centers, or build to the 500-year flood elevation.

Cochran communicated his concern over establishing the new guidelines without adequate input.

Mississippians on the Gulf Coast face the same challenges today they did before Katrina — particularly in terms of insurance. The “wind pool” is residential and commercial property insurance that includes wind damage to high-risk properties inside the six coastal counties. The “wind pool” policies insure against calamities including wind damage, but not against flood damage unless separate and highly expensive flood insurance is purchased.

Standard residential and commercial policies are available in these areas, but the vast majority don’t cover wind damage outside the “wind pool.”

Flood insurance is a property insurance “add-on.” The entire “wind versus water” litigation sought to force insurance companies to honor insurance policies that covered damage from wind so that they include wind-driven water or storm surges like that caused by Katrina. But the courts ruled almost exclusively in favor of the insurers in that litigation.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at