When Global Warming Hits Home (Literally)

In a recent PBS documentary, the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, Paul Fraim, talks about how flooding has become a monthly occurrence in his town, and how global warming and sea level rise are as much a daily issue for him as education and fighting crime. In some parts of Norfolk, streets turn into rivers at high tide. Homes are flooded five out of six years. People lose their carpets, their appliances, their savings. And they can't afford to move elsewhere.

Sea levels have risen 14 inches in Norfolk since 1930--almost double the global rate. Part of this alarming change is due to the natural sinking of the area's soggy tidal lands, but part of it is due to the rising sea levels brought about by global warming. Like stranded polar bears in the North Pole, like disappearing island nations in the Pacific, waterlogged Norfolk is yet another symbol of global warming at work. And even though Norfolk is within spitting distance of our nation's capital, Congress still hasn't seemed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Turning a blind eye to the realities of global warming is a dangerous game. Scientists predict that sea levels will rise anywhere from 7 inches to 78 inches in the next 100 years (depending, in part, on how much we do to curb global warming pollution), which means that in a few generations, nearly five million people who currently live within 4 feet of high tide could be in the same boat as the residents of Norfolk.

New research shows that global warming will double the chance of a hundred-year flood occurring in many locations within the next 18 years. In some areas, the chance is tripled.

Credit: www.climatecentral.org

Nearly half the states in the nation will be affected by rising sea levels. Despite these odds, for the most part, we are financially, structurally, and administratively unprepared to deal with the most immediate consequences of global warming.

Bailing out after a flood is a major expense not only for swamped cities, but for taxpayers all over the country. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spent more than $100,000 per home in Norfolk to raise residences above expected water levels. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), run by FEMA, is nearly $18 billion in debt, and has had to borrow money from the Treasury to stay afloat.

Part of the problem is that federal insurance coverage is based on maps which only take historical data into account, and make no predictions about future flooding. This is senseless: we know perfectly well we're looking at a future unlike anything we've seen in the past. So-called "century" floods are practically a yearly occurrence in some areas. Frequent, furious storms and higher seas are the new normal. The Norfolk-Virginia Beach area ranks 10th in the world for assets most at risk due to rising sea levels. Miami ranks first.

Private insurers have a pretty good idea of what the future will hold--they've basically gotten out of the market for disaster coverage in high-risk flood areas, making federal insurance the only option. The U.S. Navy knows the score, too: they've commissioned a study to find out how global warming will affect their activities in Norfolk, where it runs the largest naval base in the world, home to the U.S. Atlantic fleet and 54,000 active duty personnel. Researchers are modeling how rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms might affect naval operations and facilities, possibly delaying performance for hours or resulting in, as the military says, "mission impairment."

Some states are doing their part to prepare for the reality of sea level rise. California has a comprehensive climate adaptation plan, which includes directives for state agencies to assess and reduce the risks of sea level rise to construction projects in flood-risk areas. Massachusetts is working to conserve and restore critical wetlands and buffer zones to enhance natural flood protection. Pennsylvania, even though it's not on the coast, faces threats to its water supply from saltwater intrusion into the Delaware River. The state is turning to green infrastructure to improve water quality, using features like green roofs and rain gardens to absorb excess stormwater and reduce the flow of sediment and pollution into waterways.  

It's Congress that seems unable to confront the reality of global warming, a head-in-the-sand approach that puts our property, our health, and our money at risk. The NFIP, by providing insurance coverage for buildings in flood-prone areas, is actually encouraging development where, practically speaking, there should be none. The program should focus on incentives that will help homeowners prepare their homes to better withstand flooding, saving lives and lowering the cost of rebuilding. Studies estimate that prevention and mitigation strategies save $4 dollars for every dollar spent. The intention of the program was to help people in need, and it should continue to do so. But basing coverage on inaccurate, unscientific maps doesn't do anyone any favors. It's misleading to homeowners and all taxpayers who share the burden of the costs of flooding.

Ignoring the threat of rising seas leaves too many people in harms' way. We need to step up efforts to reduce global warming pollution, and make plans to ensure that our homes, our businesses, and our health are protected. This is where the government needs to play its role as defender of the public interest, and start seriously examining the consequences of global warming.