Before the next flood, protect America’s infrastructure

Before the next flood, protect America’s infrastructure
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These days, there aren’t many issues that inspire hundreds of public officials from around the country and across the political spectrum to come together in support of a common goal. But here’s one: the need to safeguard America’s roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure from flooding.

Flooding is the costliest natural disaster in the United States. It accounted for more than $268 billion in damage last year, a number that has risen steadily over the past two decades, and it affects the entire country, including areas well inland. Every state has experienced at least two major floods in the past 10 years.

That’s why I’ve joined more than 250 state and local officials, representing all 50 states and more than 45 million Americans, in signing a statement of principles to make our infrastructure more flood-ready. We believe this can be done with policies that improve resiliency requirements for buildings and infrastructure; enhance the use of natural defenses, such as open green space and wetlands, in disaster preparedness; and reduce unsustainable development in high-risk areas.


These principles are particularly relevant now for many reasons, starting with the fact that this is the sixth annual National Infrastructure Week, a time when hundreds of organizations and citizens around the country join forces to highlight how critical our roads, bridges, schools and the like are to our economy, society and security. And yet, in 2017, our nation’s infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers because many structures and systems are close to failing and vulnerable to disasters. Bringing that grade up will carry a big price tag; for school facilities alone, underinvestment has left an annual gap of $38 billion.  

But repairing and upgrading our infrastructure is an investment we have to make, because the status quo isn’t working. Rising waters during last summer’s fusillade of hurricanes closed schools in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands for weeks and forced hospitals, fire and police stations, libraries and other public institutions to suspend operations.

In the past year, floods also have crippled communities in states far from last year’s hurricanes including Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and California. And that’s only a partial list. Where it rains, it can flood, and experts tell us the frequency of flooding will only grow in many parts of the country.

On the bright side, those who signed the statement of principles already know that states, cities and communities that develop smart policies and implement forward-thinking plans can come through these severe events with considerably less damage, and lower costs, than those that have not.    

As mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, I witnessed dozens of floods, including many that shuttered schools, damaged roads and bridges, and destroyed homes. Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, devastated our state and left approximately $10 billion in damage across the Caribbean and the Southeast United States. Over my four decades in office, I committed to making Charleston flood-ready by investing heavily in smart urban design, improving stormwater systems, and developing a comprehensive strategy to address sea-level rise. We spent almost a quarter-billion dollars to upgrade drainage systems — a vast sum, considering Charleston’s annual budget — and increased the use of nature and green spaces to help absorb floodwaters.

The data show that nature-based solutions work. In one of many examples, Ottawa, Illinois, a small town on the Illinois River, endured three 100-year floods over a seven-year span before Mayor Robert Eschbach initiated a property buyout program that led to the conversion of more than 80 buildings into soccer fields and parks. When a record flood hit in 2013, Ottawa avoided the millions of dollars in damage suffered by communities just downriver.

Building code improvements and similar resiliency measures also work. After passing one of the strongest building codes in the country, storm-caused losses in Florida fell by 72 percent, according to a recent study. And in Houston, all but one of the Texas Medical Center’s clinical care facilities stayed open throughout Hurricane Harvey because of modifications, including installing above-ground electrical vaults, implemented after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

But Americans can’t rely on private institutions or local governments to make these changes without help. Voters agree that the country needs national policy. In a poll released Feb. 1 by The Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly 9 out of 10 respondents supported a requirement that federally financed infrastructure in flood-prone areas be built to better withstand the impacts of flooding. 

With state and local officials, communities and a resounding majority of Americans backing federal action on flood preparedness, our national leaders have a real opportunity to make resilience the norm. The time to do that is now, before the next flood arrives.

Joseph P. Riley was mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, from December 1975 to January 2016 and now is a distinguished fellow with The Pew Charitable Trusts. He served in the South Carolina General Assembly from 1969-1974. As one of the longest-serving U.S. mayors, he is credited with saving Charleston after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, aiding the stranded and garnering millions of dollars to repair the city.