The worst hurricane season in memory has spurred President Donald Trump to consider new ways to prod private homeowners to move out of flood plains. But many of the federal government’s own buildings are also at risk of flooding, including the one that Trump has leased for his Washington hotel.
The U.S. General Services Administration, which runs most non-defense federal facilities, owns or operates 14.3 million square feet of buildings in the flood zone. That’s equivalent to nearly three Pentagons, spread across 14 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands.
Unlike private buildings, those structures aren’t required to follow local permitting rules for flood risk. And they don’t carry flood insurance.
The greatest concentration of flood-exposed federal civilian buildings is in Washington, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News through a government-records request.
In Washington, the list of properties in the 100-year flood plain includes the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department, the government data shows. The EPA’s headquarters alone has sustained $1.6 million in flood or wind damage over the past decade.
The headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—the agency responsible for responding to floods, hurricanes and other disasters—sits just outside the floodplain.
The list of government-own properties in the 100-year flood zone also includes the Old Post Office Pavilion, which the Trump Organization leased and has opened as Trump International Hotel.
Patricia Tang, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, said she didn’t know whether the company’s management was aware the building was in a flood plain when it pursued the lease. However, “I would assume that it wouldn’t have been an issue, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone forward.”
Tang said the hotel has “a lot of plans” to deal with flooding and other security risks. She declined to say what those plans were.
Unlike homeowners with federally backed mortgages, government buildings in flood zones aren’t required to carry flood insurance. So, when those buildings get flooded, taxpayers shoulder the cost. For example, the U.S. Post Office in Galveston, Texas, flooded during Hurricane Harvey and also during Hurricane Ike in 2008; the two events cost taxpayers $1.5 million.
As warmer temperatures lead to more frequent and severe hurricanes, rainstorms and other types of extreme weather, the number of federal properties exposed to flooding is likely to grow.
The risk has already started to spread: While the most expensive damage to federal facilities over the past decade occurred at buildings in the flood plain, an even greater number of buildings hit by floods or wind damage were outside that zone.
The GSA says its policy is to avoid putting new properties in the flood plain unless there are no alternatives in the area. For buildings that are in a flood plain, GSA has a process to identify and mitigate adverse impacts from flooding, the agency said.
Yet the federal government’s own rules for reducing flood exposure have been weakened under this administration. In August, President Donald Trump reversed an Obama-era rule that required federally funded buildings and other government projects to account for future flood risks.
That leaves federal agencies poorly equipped to protect their buildings against the risks, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Flood Plain Managers.
The federal government needs to follow “a robust examination of flood risk” when it decides where and how to build new facilities, Berginnis said in an email. “The 100-year floodplain was not enough.”