Record Flooding in the Heartland

Historic flooding has hit parts of the lower Midwest. The flooding has closed hundreds of roads, inundated homes, and most tragically, has left several people dead. Unfortunately, major flood events appear to be on the rise in the United States. Flood risk reduction must be a top priority as the National Flood Insurance Program under goes reform.
Credit: Randolph County, Ark.:-- Multiple rivers near Pocahontas flooded homes and businesses. Photo Credit: Arkansas National Guard

Historic flooding has hit parts of Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri after torrential rain swept through the area earlier in the week. The flooding has closed hundreds of roads, inundated homes, and most tragically, has left several people dead. Unfortunately, major flood events, like the ones currently hammering the Midwest, appear to be on the rise in the United States. Reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) must be a top priority for Congress, not only because the program is set to expire on September 30th, but because the NFIP has the potential to be a critical tool in preparing the United States for this wetter, more extreme future. As such, reforms must go beyond merely addressing the program’s fiscal shortcomings, and instead, must seek to incentivize flood risk reduction through greater support of the NFIP’s mitigation components.     

Recording Breaking Floods on the Rise

Fourteen flood records have already been broken and more are expected as flood crests push southward. Cape Girardeau, MO is on track to witness a flood stage of 48.5ft, near breaking the record set in January 2016.  

Credit: National Weather Service

Floods of this magnitude should be rare events. However, record-setting floods appear to be occurring more frequently, especially in the Midwest. For example, the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau has reached historic or near historic flood levels eight times since 2010. This is a trend that is likely to continue as extreme rain storms become more common in many parts of the United States.   

High Cost of Flooding

Flooding already takes a heavy financial toll on the nation. Between 1980 and 2013, the United States suffered more than $260 billion in flood-related damages. Additionally, flooding accounts for approximately 85% of all disaster declarations. From 1998 to 2014, $48.6 billion in FEMA Public Assistance Grants were spent in the wake of floods to repair or replace public buildings ($12.6 billion), public utilities ($7.4 billion), roads and bridges ($5.5 billion), and water-control facilities like levees, dams, and pumps ($1 billion), with the remainder spent on clean-up and emergency actions.

NFIP Reauthorization

These floods come at an interesting time. Congress is currently debating much needed reforms to the NFIP. The program provides low-cost insurance to 5.5 million policy holders in 22,000 communities nationwide. The NFIP is currently $24.6 billion in debt to the US Treasury because the program pays more to cover repairs from flood damages than it collects in premiums. As major flood events become more common, the financial exposure of the Federal government will grow, absent substantive reforms that put the NFIP on more sound footing. 

While reforms must certainly address the fiscal woes of the program, such as establishing risk-based rates for all policy holders and increasing the number of people who buy flood insurance through better enforcement of the mandatory purchase requirement, the program must also look toward increasing support for mitigation activities that reduce flood risk. Reforms take a holistic approach to strengthening the three legs of the NFIP. Strong support for floodplain mapping and floodplain management (through regulations such as building codes and zoning) is just as important as improving the insurance component for ensuring the NFIP remains on sound financial footing. 

Additionally, the NFIP must strengthen incentives for people to lower their flood risk, including helping people relocate when they cannot take suffering through another flood event. (Click here to learn about NRDC’s “discounts for buyouts” proposal that seeks to help move people, who desire to so, out of harm’s way).

As climate change, such as rising sea levels and bigger rain events, exacerbates the nation’s flood risk, the NFIP cannot continue with a business-as-usual mentality. Solely rebuilding people in place, only to be flooded again and again, is not the answer. Instead, any reforms to the NFIP must focus on reducing the threat of flooding to people and property to truly achieve a sound and successful program.