3 actions the government can take today to lessen the damage of future floods

Shannon Cunniff

Another devastating hurricane, another bill for American taxpayers: The tally from Hurricane Florence may go as high as $22 billion, according to Moody’s, placing it in the top 10 category for damages.

We can either continue down this path, or make a collective reevaluation of how we manage risk. It means we must revisit the myriad of local, state and federal laws and policies that guide how we cope with storms in our changing climate. And it means we must challenge long-held assumptions.

The time may be just right. Congress just passed a bipartisan bill to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency that includes funding to help communities better prepare for disaster. It signals that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are open to solutions.

Here are three initial, common-sense and nonpartisan actions the Trump administration and Congress can take to strengthen America’s resilience against floods, which kill more Americans than any other disaster and cost us billions annually. All are doable and necessary.

1. Make FEMA’s flood maps accurate

Let’s start with the maps. FEMA’s maps are developed to establish annual flood insurance rates for properties, but are also used to guide local decisions on development.

Unfortunately, the agency’s maps today fail to capture the true extent of river, rainfall and storm flooding, a recent report found. In particular, they miss risks associated with smaller streams, which are often where development of residential and commercial properties occurs.

Plus, the maps are based on historic events and the past is no longer a good forecaster of future conditions in our rapidly changing climate. Making things worse, they’re not updated frequently enough to reflect the effects of recent extreme weather.

This means FEMA’s maps woefully underestimate the number of Americans who are exposed to a “100-year flood event” – which actually has about a 26-percent probability of occurring during a 30-year mortgage.

Privatizing flood mapping may be a solution if federal standards can establish that findings are readily available, methods transparent, updates occur far more rapidly and localized map revisions are possible. Either way, nobody can argue against the fact that we need better maps to guide development. 

2. Reward states that reduce risks

Higher standards for siting, designing and constructing projects reduce risks of loss of life and property from floods and represent an important step in proactively managing increasing flood risks associated with more intense storms and sea level rise.  

On one hand, FEMA recognizes higher state standards as a method to reduce risk and rewards areas with better standards with discounts to flood insurance premiums. When the federal government is sharing the cost of a project with a local sponsor, however, that sponsor has to pay any additional costs for building the project to their higher flood risk management standards.

This sends the wrong message and is a problem that can easily be fixed. The federal government can share the costs of superior local requirements, a solution that should appeal to members of both parties.

3. Emphasize risk reduction benefits

Recovery spending should emphasize actions that help communities become more resilient to future floods. Greater funding is needed for FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, for example. It helps communities prevent flood vulnerabilities such as undersized culverts, and to elevate buildings to reduce flood damage.

Far more could be done to look at how other federal decisions can mitigate flooding. The White House Council on Environmental Quality could organize such an effort.

Federal agencies can also look at protection and restoration of habitats that lessen the impacts of floods. Healthy forests absorb rainfall and slow its flow into streams, wetlands lower flood heights and velocity, and dunes provide protective barriers to waves.

Through wetland loss, the Houston area lost roughly 4 billion gallons worth of flood retention. If North Carolina [PDF] had not lost about half of its wetlands, flooding from Hurricane Florence would probably have been less damaging in some areas.

The risk reduction benefits provided by habitats should be formally recognized in federal policy, while policies that erode protection of wetlands and floodplains should be reconsidered.   

Water respects no political boundaries, and given the expanding landscape of flood risk, every agency needs to step up and find solutions that preserve floodplain functions and protect our economy and citizens.

Is it doable? Most certainly. Can it be bipartisan? You bet.

Comments

All the actions here will not solve the situation the Good USA Requires, what is needed are freshwater grid, a power grid-like distribution network, but for freshwater instead of power, using the Mississippi (or any lake) as a temporary “holding tank.”

[It will be] a water backbone utilizing high-volume water at low discharge pressure axial flow propeller pumps, to dump in it flash flood water from hurricanes, storms etc from miles away. [We can] micro-monitor and route water as required, using this freshwater grid for states that need Water the most: California, Nevada, Colorado, Texas etc. — places where water is needed desperately.

Instead of investing billions in useless projects that solves nothing, with a moment’s notice, axial flow propeller pumps can move from 500 to 1,000,000 GPM, sucking-up the extra water in matters of minutes or hours [while] preventing very expensive flash floods and stagnant water that damages houses and cause billions in insurance losses, not to mention loss of life and environmental damage.

These pumps can be solar-powered and have thousands of dark fibers installed alongside on American aluminum pipelines with no rust. Built using American labor, the dark fiber [along with] the freshwater will provide an additional source of income to states, counties and cities.

I do not understand why America with all its wisdom and brain power can’t use this solution. FEMA should be in the business of preventing disasters, which is a hell of a lot cheaper that repairing flood-damaged houses, roads, churches, farms etc. — not to mention poor, defenseless animals and birds.

TITO M SANDOVAL
October 9, 2018 at 2:17 am

These seemingly simple tasks can and must be done, on a non-partisan basis, to start the ball rolling toward developing a sensible approach to handling flooding. It’s time to take the first step now!

Sue E. Dean
October 9, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Flood maps are outdated; the stormwater management of DuPage County [Ilinois] is a joke. Politicians allow developers to overbuild so they can increase the tax base to the detriment of the existing community. [They all] run on a flood plain promise, but as soon as they are elected they start raising funds to stay in power.

CN Avella
October 10, 2018 at 4:43 pm

We need to position ourselves better for the future climate to minimize our future loss. These measures will lower future FEMA expenditures as well as helping to lower loss of homes, businesses, infrastructure — and most importantly — human life.

Lyn Hecker
October 12, 2018 at 6:39 am

These suggestions make so much sense. Now Congress needs to exhibit some good sense and implement them.

Jan Samet O'Leary
October 12, 2018 at 8:32 pm

How about phasing out National Flood Insurance, altogether, with a goal of zero federal taxpayer support for flood insurance, by 2080?

Any economist will tell you that the property values of water-front and low-lying properties are increased, in direct proportion to the number of federal and state dollars that allow insurance to be provided to people who would not, otherwise, be able to recover from catastrophic losses, as a result of flooding.

Absent subsidies, values of higher-elevation properties would increase, and values of waterfront properties would decrease. Laws would have to be changed to prevent hotels from springing up, operating until a flood hits, and then dissolving — leaving wreckage, but no demolition or clean-up funds.

During the transition period, the government could “take on” some part of the cost of moving businesses from low-lying or waterfront areas to higher-elevation areas. Or [it can] place those monies into escrow accounts that would help clear the wreckage that’s left when a business that would not or could not move to higher ground, flooded and “went under.” In my opinion, the EDF would do well to examine the events associated with the Mike-Espy-era Mississippi River floods [1990s], and the G.W. Bush-era flooding in New Orleans and Texas 9Hurricanes Katrina and Rita).

Giving attention to claims made against Brad Pitt — or whoever the celebrity is, who built environmentally-naive housing in New Orleans, only to see it ruined by the climate and lack of maintenance — might inform EDF’s policy recommendations, also. Best wishes, Larry Powers.

Larry Powers
October 13, 2018 at 7:23 pm

We must do better in re-mapping flood zones and do what we can to protect areas from flooding.

Jane Jones k
October 18, 2018 at 10:49 pm

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