Many Alabamians may find it hard to believe that July 15 of this year marked four years since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was capped in the Gulf of Mexico. Countless Alabamians were impacted by the spill, which dumped nearly five million barrels of oil into coastal waters.
In 2012, Congress responded by enacting the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act designed to deploy federal fines and penalties to rejuvenate areas most impacted by the spill.
For Alabamians skeptical about the consolidation of power in Washington, the RESTORE Act carries a decidedly different tenor. Without the RESTORE Act, the fines and penalties paid to the federal government would have been remitted to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which only pays for a limited scope of projects related to oil spills. Instead, Congress intended to redirect those funds into the hands of state and local leaders closest to the affected communities.
Since the funding mechanism for the RESTORE Act relies on the determination of the final value of the fines and penalties assessed to the responsible parties, Alabamians have time to develop ideas that effectively utilize the millions, and possibly more than a $1 billion, to restore our state. In fact, Alabama’s Gulf Coast Recovery Council already has a mechanism for Alabamians to submit projects for consideration.
Because state and local governments will have such a significant role in the distribution of funds, they must engage the project selection process with transparency and an eye to projects that address known challenges in Alabama.
With that in mind, one particular use of funds stands out.
The RESTORE Act lists “coastal flood protection and related infrastructure” as a qualifying project criteria. At first blush, that may sound like a mundane use of funds, but that could not be further from the truth.
Flood insurance is a costly necessity for many Alabamians in the Gulf Coast region, and, as it turns out, what might be good for the environment might be good for the wallets of Alabamians as well.
Without delving into the complicated and controversial world of flood insurance policy, the National Flood Insurance Program makes federally subsidized flood insurance available in communities that take certain minimal steps to manage their floodplains and reduce future flood risk to new construction. Communities that undertake even more precautions through the Community Rating System (CRS) receive “incentives in the form of premium discounts.”
Several of Alabama’s coastal areas have already participated in the CRS. According to forthcoming research by the Alabama Policy Institute’s Brandon Demyan, the two highest CRS classifications are “Orange Beach, which is a Class 7, providing a 15 percent discount for residents who live in a special flood zone hazard area, and Baldwin County, which is a Class 6 and provides a 20 percent discount.” Currently, many of Alabama’s coastal communities are either not participating in CRS at all or have room to develop.
One glaring area for improvement is the City of Mobile, which had its CRS eligibility rescinded and receives no premium discounts.
Cities may receive credit for 18 different activities to mitigate flood damages. Projects range from outreach that provides information about flood protection measures to better storm water management practices. Other projects require investments in flood-proofing measures, improving elevations, and ensuring clean drainage channels and retention basins.
When the funds are distributed, the RESTORE Act should provide a great opportunity to rebuild, renovate, and protect our state without hammering state and local budgets. By shoring up Alabama’s Gulf Coast against flooding, Alabama might be able to protect its citizens, its environment, and its economy at the same time.