Maryland Flood Highlights Need for Climate Change Planning

Billion-dollar disasters are on the rise, in part due to climate change. Trends like these show why we can no longer rely on the past to project the future with regards to natural disasters.
Credit: NOAA

This weekend, a historic flash-flooding event killed two people and caused massive destruction in Ellicott City, Maryland. The town received more than 6 inches of rain over the span of two hours. According to the National Weather Service, an event like this should statistically happen only once every 1,000 years, based on historical data.

But because of climate change, extreme events like this one are happening more frequently, and scientists expect that trend to continue into the future. Our past experiences with floods are no longer a reliable indicator of our present or future risk.

The same is true for other types of natural disasters, too. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has noted, “the challenges posed by climate change, such as more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, extreme flooding, and higher sea levels, could significantly alter the types and magnitudes of hazards impacting states in the future.” 

So why is Maryland not comprehensively accounting for climate change in its new plan to protect its communities—like Ellicott City—from future natural disasters?

All fifty states develop plans for reducing their communities’ vulnerability to disasters. These are known as “hazard mitigation plans.” They’re supposed to help the state understand its risks and vulnerabilities, and develop strategies to keep people and property safe. Those strategies include things like moving structures out of the floodplain, flood- and wind-proofing existing buildings, and putting emergency warning systems in place.

Many states write their plans by looking backward at the natural hazards they’ve experienced in the past, assuming they’ll experience more of the same in the future. But as we’ve already seen with increased flooding and precipitation events, climate change renders that assumption null and void. 

NRDC has fought for a more forward-looking vision for several years, successfully petitioning FEMA to require that all states consider climate change when assessing their future risk of natural hazards. Maryland is the very first state to update its hazard mitigation plan under the new FEMA requirement.

We had expected that Maryland would develop a strong plan that fully integrated climate change considerations. Unfortunately, the current draft of the plan doesn't get the job done.

(Note: the draft plan was provided to NRDC for review but was not made available to the general public, so we can’t post a copy here. In fact, the public has no real way to weigh in on the plan, as Maryland doesn't offer a comment period. That’s a function of the fact that FEMA’s rules don’t provide for public participation in the development of these plans—an aspect of the rules that NRDC has been advocating to change.)

The current draft of the plan includes some strong components that will help Maryland address the challenges of climate change. But it misses some significant opportunities to fully integrate climate change projections and develop forward-thinking strategies.  In some ways, it even represents a regression from the state’s previous plan with regard to climate change. 

Fortunately, the state is still working on the plan and will hopefully continue to strengthen it. Maryland must take this opportunity to make sure climate change projections are comprehensively integrated into the plan.

Marylanders need protection from the disasters of the future, not the disasters of the past. The state should be thinking about ways to protect towns like Ellicott City from more intense floods and storms by making infrastructure more resilient. Ignoring climate change could mean that the state wastes resources on ineffective strategies, or even puts people and property in harm’s way.

Keep reading for more details on the high and low points of the plan’s treatment of climate change.

Many areas of Maryland are vulnerable to sea level rise.
Credit: MDE

The plan includes some information about climate change. We were glad to see that Maryland included excerpts from the National Climate Assessment in the plan to help understand how climate change is anticipated to affect the United States generally. The plan also acknowledges climate change as a factor that can exacerbate coastal flooding and erosion in Maryland, and it notes that areas of low flood risk could become high-risk areas in the future. This information is important because it empowers the state to develop and prioritize future activities to reduce risk. 

However, the discussion is fairly cursory and less detailed than what the state included in its previous plan from 2011. Maryland needs to include enough detail about climate change impacts so that it can use that information to make planning decisions.

The plan omits climate change information from the discussion of other natural hazards. Specifically, climate change is not mentioned at all in the assessments for winter storms, tornadoes, wind, thunderstorms, wildfires, or drought. This is disappointing. 

While climate change’s impact on many of these hazards is still being understood, there’s plenty of data out there that can provide at least a general sense of the trends Maryland can expect in the coming years. Considering how a particular hazard’s risk might evolve over time—whether it’s affecting new areas, happening more often, or having more severe consequences—is critical to the process of identifying strategies to reduce vulnerability. 

The omission is especially puzzling because the 2011 plan did attempt to address the future impacts of climate change in many of its hazard-specific risk assessments. Maryland should make sure its new plan is more comprehensive than its old plan, not less.

Hazards were identified and prioritized in a backward-looking way that ignores climate change. The plan states that natural hazards were identified for discussion based on past federal disaster declarations and other previous hazard occurrences. This approach doesn’t account for the fact that some hazards could have increasingly greater impacts in the coming years—like extreme heat, a hazard which is not included in the plan.

Extreme rain events are becoming more frequent in Maryland and the Northeast generally.
Credit: NOAA

Some risk-reduction strategies in the plan are explicitly focused on climate change. The plan proposes to educate local governments about the impacts of climate change and protect shorelines from sea level rise, actions that would help to build resilience in Maryland communities. 

But climate change is not a ranking or prioritization factor for mitigation strategies. It’s critical to factor climate change into any decisions about which risk-reducing strategies to prioritize. Actions that do more to promote long-term resilience should be preferred over actions that don’t address climate change when other factors are equal. 

It seems likely that the absence of climate change from the prioritization factors explains why only one of the plan’s new climate-focused mitigation actions is ranked as a “high priority” action. It might also explain why none of the climate-focused actions in the 2011 plan have yet been implemented. This must change moving forward.  

We detailed all of these points and more in a comment letter that we submitted to Maryland last week. We hope to have the opportunity to work with the state on improving the plan to better incorporate climate change and make Maryland communities safer and more resilient in the long term.


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