Tallahassee — Festering hostility between two federal agencies has stymied enforcement of rules barring new construction on Florida floodplains, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Consequently, threats to public safety and economic losses from hurricanes in Florida are magnified because many more residences, businesses and even shelters and other critical care facilities are located where they will be most vulnerable to flooding.
The federal policy to minimize building on floodplains is embodied in Executive Order 11988 which directs all federal agencies “to avoid to the extent possible the long and short term adverse impacts associated with the occupancy and modification of floodplains and to avoid direct or indirect support of floodplain development wherever there is a practicable alternative.”
But the two key agencies charged with carrying out this policy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are no longer on speaking terms in Florida. As a result, neither agency is implementing floodplain restrictions, with each blaming the other.
The FEMA complaint was most broadly expressed in an October 23, 2001 letter from William Straw, the agency’s Regional Environmental officer, to his Corps counterpart in Florida:
“In summary, the current Corps permitting programs appear to be inconsistent with EO 11988 for the following reasons: The Corps appears to make no effort to determine whether proposed projects are located in the floodplain. The Corps assumes that floodplains do not exist if they have not been mapped by FEMA. The Corps fails to consider whether practicable alternatives exist to locating in the floodplain and, for projects that will be located in the floodplain, fails to consider whether the project design minimizes flood risks.”
The Corps version is captured in a September 13, 2005 email from John Hall, then-chief of Corps regulatory affairs in Florida, to Ann Hauck, co-founder of the Council of Civic Associations, Inc., as well as a number of U.S. Environmental Agency officials. In defensive tones, Hall complains that FEMA refuses to cooperate and is shirking its job of mapping floodplains (a job in which the Corps is supposed to assist FEMA) that are supposed to be off-limits for building:
“[W]e found that about 1/3d of Florida didn’t have up to date flood maps or ANY flood maps, as I recall. And those that were available were not very current.”
“The Corps and FEMA need to end the bickering and start doing their jobs,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, whose organization today sent a letter to the Inspector Generals for each agency asking for a joint review of why floodplain protections are being ignored. “This is beyond negligence – these federal agencies are supposed to be providing adult leadership but instead they are acting like spoiled children.”