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Our disastrous flood-control policies

AFP PHOTO / Thomas B. Shea
People walk through the flooded waters of Hurricane Harvey on Telephone Rd. in Houston on August 27, 2017. AFP PHOTO / Thomas B. Shea

Increasingly dangerous developments have put tens of millions of Americans and their homes at serious risk. The danger is growing, but we have no effective national plan to deal with it.

That describes the nation’s response to floods. Here are the developments:

  • Americans keep building in river and coastal floodplains.
  • We don’t have incentives or rules to stop them.
  • Coastal storms and rains are more severe and will get worse.
  • Urban designs increase flood damages.
  • Our traditional flood-control structures are old and inadequate.
  • A real estate bubble is putting flood-prone communities in even greater danger.

Experts confirm that America’s disaster policy is itself a disaster. One is Larry Larson, who has spent 60 years helping cities reduce flood risks. He is now the Director Emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), which he founded in 1977. He is frustrated at the perfect storm national policymakers have allowed to develop.

A brief history of America’s response to floods will put this in context.

Floods are a natural function of rivers. They refresh wetlands, deposit fertile silt on cropland, recharge groundwater and provide wildlife habitat. During floods, unobstructed rivers inhibit the speed and force of water by meandering, spreading out, nourishing wetlands and recharging groundwater.

The areas they occupy are called floodplains. More than 40 million Americans in the lower 48 states live in a floodplain. That’s a conservative estimate because it only counts people living in floodplains with an average reoccurrence rate of once every 100 years. Now, however, much larger and rarer floods are becoming more common. They’ll continue getting larger and more destructive because of global climate change.

Ocean waves have a purpose, too. They transfer carbon dioxide (CO2) between water and the atmosphere in the Earth’s carbon cycle, where CO2 moves through oceans, air, soils, vegetation, wetlands, living organisms and even rocks.

Floods are only disasters when people and property get in their way. Unfortunately, that happens too often as people are drawn to water. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are about 3.5 million miles of U.S. rivers and tributaries and most Americans live within a mile of a river or a stream, while about 127 million live in coastal counties — both are settings where storm surges, hurricanes, sustained rains and rising sea levels are threats. By mid-century, 4.3 million acres of coastal property worth $35 billion could be under water.

Flood control and recovery used to be left to state and local governments. Then in 1917, Congress passed a bill to involve the federal government. In 1936, Congress waded neck-deep into flood disasters by ordering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bulldoze rivers into submission and to protect coastal property with sea walls, levees, breakwaters, bulkheads, groins, jetties, revetments, riprap and concrete.

In other words, national policy let people build homes and businesses wherever they wanted, with all taxpayers footing the bill for disaster prevention, response and recovery. That’s still the case. Insurance would help, but although 99 percent of U.S. counties experienced flood disasters from 1996 to 2019, only 4 percent of homeowners had flood insurance at the end of last year.

As far back as 1958, a review of national policy found “federal incentives are creating a perception that if a serious flood hazard develops, the federal government will deal with it.” That perception persists 65 years later, encouraging state and local governments to spend too little on flood prevention. There are few effective federal incentives to keep people out of floodplains. In fact, more people are moving in than out. For example, a study just published by the American Planning Association found that more than 10 new residential homes are built in North Carolina for every home removed under a federal buy-out program.   

Dams and levees are supposed to prevent river floods. More than 90,000 dams and an estimated 40,000 miles of levees are on duty in the United States. But most dams are not for flood control; they store water, generate electricity, protect crops and provide recreation. Nevertheless, Americans have built their homes below dams that don’t meet standards for protecting lives.  

The most sensible way to prevent flood disasters has always been to forbid real estate development where rivers and oceans go. But communities want property-tax revenues from waterfront homes. Many are worth more than twice the value of comparable homes inland. That creates another kind of risk. Researchers report flood-prone homes are overvalued by as much as $237 billion because the housing market hasn’t considered flood risks. So, another type of storm is gathering: a real estate “bubble” reminiscent of the one that burst and caused the subprime mortgage crisis in the 2000s.

There’s more. Ironically, many of the structures built to protect lives and property are now potentially endangering them. Dams and levees were built to be reliable for 50 years and to offer protection based on past floods. Now, the average levee is older than 50 and the average dam is approaching 60. Few, if any, were designed to handle the increased intensity of floods caused by climate change.

There are ways to prevent flood disasters. For example, in the federal buy-out program mentioned above, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helps local governments buy floodplain homes, demolish them, as well as reconnect rivers and oceans to their natural floodplains. But the program is underutilized. It has several shortcomings, including delays of up to five years before local governments finalize a home purchase and systemic features that leave low-income homeowners underserved.

So, FEMA still allows homeowners to build and rebuild in harm’s way, sometimes repeatedly.

Larson suggests limiting the federal share of disaster recovery to 50 percent, with states and localities paying the rest. The federal share could increase to 75 percent for communities that limit development in risky places.

Experts have suggested other improvements. FEMA should base buyout prices on the sales of comparable homes outside the floodplain so families can afford to purchase or build homes elsewhere. Or Congress could reduce red tape by turning the program over to states, with federal grants contingent on removing buildings from floodplains.

Clearly, Congress must get ahead of the developing crisis of aging and inadequate flood-control structures. Four years ago, the Associated Press found at least 1,680 dams posed potential risks in the United States. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says no one knows precisely how many dams have failed, but failures have been recorded in every state.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated two years ago it would cost well over $100 billion to improve and maintain the nation’s riskiest dams and levees. The money would be better spent by relocating all but essential structures away from floodplains. Our long-range vision could be a contiguous, biodiverse protected national seashore accessible to all.

Our new mission should be flood avoidance rather than flood control. Congress should fix this soon because Americans are still moving in the wrong direction, structures are still aging and the climate will not wait for us to get this right.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

This piece has been updated.

Tags Climate change extreme weather FEMA Flood insurance flooding Global warming NOAA

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