Build American Infrastructure for a 21st Century Climate

Turkey Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Houston, Texas, flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Spring Branch Management District

President Biden has laid out a bold plan to invest in our nation’s future, one that aims to correct the racial inequities of the past and address the climate crisis we face. As we make the investments that are essential to foster a healthy and prosperous future, we must ensure that public infrastructure including our roads, our hospitals, our schools and other assets are designed and built for the 21st century climate. President Biden has said that “[e]very dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”  

Requiring a strong flood protection standard and application of the latest building codes for any federal infrastructure investments will help ensure those investments are safe for the people and communities who will rely on them.

Flood protection Standard

As the seas rise and rainstorms become more extreme, the time to require all federally funded infrastructure be prepared for the floods of the future is now. Executive Order 13690 and the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard must be reinstated.

Flooding is the most common and costly natural hazard in the U.S. Since 2000, flood-related disas­ters in the United States accounted for more than $800 billion in losses. Communities already struggle to maintain aged and inadequate infrastructure. Flood­ing exacerbated by climate change will only continue this trend. For example, wastewater systems are highly susceptible to floods as they are typically located in low-lying areas for collection and discharge. If sea levels rise between three to six feet, 10.4 million to 31.6 million Americans could lose wastewater services due to the associated increase in coastal flooding. That amount is more than fivefold the number of people whose homes would be directly inundated.

Siting and designing infrastructure based on expected future conditions can reduce exposure and vulnerability. For example, we typically design, and site buildings according to the extent of the 100-year flood (a flood that we think has a 1% chance of occurring).  However, that standard is defined based on historical information and may not reflect today’s flood risk, certainly not the risk decades from now.  Continuing to build or rebuild federally funded infrastructure to the height of the 100-year flood level could adversely affect the longevity of such infrastructure’s design life. In contrast, elevating or floodproofing structures multiple feet above the height of the 100-year flood level is a proven strategy to reduce flood-related damage.

Executive Order 13690 and the FFRMS had directed all federal agencies to use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, like affordable housing, hospitals, and emergency response facilities. Projects were to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever possible or, if not possible, buildings and facilities were to be raised so they were less likely to be damaged by rising flood waters.  

Modern Codes

Additionally, any federal infrastructure investments must, at minimum, be designed and built to the latest codes to account for other climate impacts that are non-flood related.

For the last 30 years of code development, every stakeholder – from developers to homeowners to renters – has benefited overall from improvement in code requirements for natural hazards.  However, code adoption is not uniform across the country. While some communities adopt new code editions on a regular cycle, others remain on older, outdated editions. Communities that do not update their codes are continuing to allow construction that does not meet standards proven to make homes more resilient and better able to withstand extreme events. 

For example, in the U.S., the I-Codes protect new buildings from a variety of hazards – hurricane winds, earthquakes, and Wildland-Urban Interface fires. Adopting the 2018 IRC or IBC (currently, the latest I-Codes) provides a $11 to $1 Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR).

“Building codes have greatly improved society’s disaster resilience” by reducing the loss of life, property damage, and business interruption. All stakeholders – from developers, titleholders, and lenders, to tenants and communities – benefit from safer and stronger codes.     

Climate Impacts

The impacts of climate change – extreme heat, powerful storms, and sea-level rise – are already impossible to ignore, and are projected to grow in severity even under most optimistic greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios. According to the National Climate Assessment, the heaviest rainfalls are becoming heavier and more frequent, paralleled by an increase in floods where the largest increases in heavy rain amounts have occurred. 

Sea levels are also projected to rise exponentially over the course of the century. By 2100, global mean sea level may rise as high as 6.6 feet. Even two feet of sea level rise will have serious ramifications, endangering more than 5,790 square miles of coastline and more than $1 trillion of current property and structures.

Sea level rise and an increase in heavy rain events are projected to continue for the foreseeable future, threatening towns, homes, and whole communities//LINK//. Climate changes will have significant impacts on the reliability and operability of the nation’s infrastructure, with potential corresponding disruptions to the U.S. economy. However, these climate impacts can be reduced through smart planning and adaptive actions.

As the saying goes, the future is now. The effects of a changing climate are upon us. As we make investments in buildings, roads and water plants that will stay with us for decades to come, we must ensure that they can withstand hotter heat waves, stronger storms and greater flooding.