Planning for the next flood disaster: 3 areas in need of immediate attention

Steve Cochran

Extreme flood events in geographically diverse parts of the country have made it clear that long-term weather history is no longer a reliable guide for what’s ahead. The climate is changing and that means more extreme weather.

And yet, we continue to move forward with plans, projects and developments that ignore this new reality.

With five 1,000-year floods under our belt in less than a year, we need to take a step back, as a nation, to reassess risk and adjust our behavior.

I believe there are three areas in need of immediate attention to help our communities, homes and infrastructure weather what will undoubtedly be a stormier future.

1. Homeowners: Weigh risks to your property

In terms of flooding, no matter where we live – near a river, on the coast, or in an area traditionally shielded from disastrous storms – we need to plan ahead.

If you’re in the market for a home and find a property in the high-hazard 100-year floodplain, you have more than a 1 in 4 chance of getting hit by a flood during your 30-year mortgage. With climate change, that probability is increasing.

The rash of recent 1,000-year flood events demonstrates that such disasters can happen anywhere, and that any homeowner should now be in the market for flood insurance.

If you already live or plan to live along the coast, meanwhile, you need to look at sea-level rise estimates and plan accordingly. Your property may lose value as risks increase.

You may want to elevate your house to lower such risks along with flood insurance rates. One day you may even need to relocate.

2. Zoning departments: Rethink plans

There are currently an estimated 20,000 communities across the United States in flood-prone areas, and as many as 9 million commercial and residential buildings in floodplains.

So if you run a local governmental body with any responsibility for zoning, this is the time to keep developers from continuing to build in these areas. You also want to move flood-prone structures out of harm’s way to recreate naturally functioning floodplains.

If you fail to change zoning ordinances, at least require building designs that can better cope with floods – such as elevated structures or buildings with materials that can withstand inundation.

If you’re a political leader of any sort, you’re wise to work with your local zoning officials and begin to deal with the reality of more intense weather, if you haven’t already. Educate yourself and begin to help educate those you represent.

Louisiana’s comprehensive coastal restoration planning process, for example, incorporates the latest science on sea level rise into its new restoration plans every five years. It’s a good model for coastal planning.

3. Feds: Spend money where it matters most

Finally, at the federal level, we need to look hard at our approaches to both preparation and response.

Today, there’s a tremendous imbalance between how much we spend on preparation and resilience – millions – and what we spend on recovery – billions.

This is contrary to how every analysis suggests tax dollars be allocated. We know that for every dollar we spend to reduce the risk of flood disasters, we save $5 in disaster response and recovery.

This is why we should require recovery spending to focus on making a flooded area more resilient the next time a storm hits. Putting everything back the way it was without addressing risks, like we’ve been doing, is just not smart. 

It’s not a new world, but as the baseball legend Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” The sooner we come to grips with that, and fashion plans and policies based on a new climate reality, the better for us all.

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