Hurricane Joaquin highlights the need to deal with rising risk of flooding, sea level rise and climate change

Hurricane Joaquin is moving north and continues to batter the Bahamas. We may get lucky and it won't make landfall in the U.S. but Joaquin is still going to cause widespread flooding by dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing a surge of water into coastal areas. The National Weather Service is forecasting tides over 8 feet in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic coastline.

NOAA Image-

Hard to believe, but Joaquin is the first major hurricane (a hurricane with sustained wind speeds over 110 mph) to threaten the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Sandy, you may recall, was a huge and destructive storm, but with winds less than 75 mph it was technically not a hurricane. The decade since Wilma is the longest stretch of time without a major hurricane, dating back to 1851 when records began being kept.

Despite ten years with no major hurricanes we have still had our share of major flood events. Since Wilma struck (causing $23 billion in losses) we've seen 16 floods or tropical storm events that have caused in excess of $1 billion in losses including Superstorm Sandy ($67 billion), Hurricane Ike ($33 billion), Hurricane Irene ($14 billion), and major floods on the Mississippi River in 2008 and 2011 (combined $14 billion).

In the past two years, the Obama administration has advanced several smart initiatives that recognize the role climate change is playing in making many natural disasters more frequent and/or more severe. And the administration is taking steps to better prepare the nation for a future where sea levels are higher, extreme weather is more likely, and the risk of flooding is on the rise.

Federal Flood Protection Standards

President Obama updated an executive order that improved the flood risk standard that federal agencies must follow when building or funding the construction of projects near coastlines and riverine floodplains. The new standard requires a higher margin of safety to account for the increased likelihood of floods and directs agencies to factor in the future risks of sea level rise and other climate impacts where necessary. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to gut this common sense measure.

Integrate Climate Impacts into State Disaster Plans

In March, FEMA began requiring states to assess the future impacts of climate change in disaster preparedness plans that they submit to FEMA for approval. For too long, states have relied exclusively on historical data to gauge their vulnerability to floods, droughts, tropical storms, and other natural disasters. To prepare for future disasters, it's essential to look at how climate change loads the dice in favor of more frequent and/or more severe weather events. FEMA, at the urging of NRDC, has made it clear that states need to factor climate impacts into their plans, also known as hazard mitigation plans.

National Disaster Resilience Competition

This $1 billion competition, sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is encouraging states and communities to pursue innovative approaches for becoming more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Sixty-seven state and local governments were invited to participate in the competition. Forty finalists will submit applications at the end of this month with winners announced later this year. This effort was modeled on the highly successful Rebuild By Design program, which Congress approved as part of its Post Sandy recovery assistance.

Past Damages and Future Risks

If we just look at the areas threatened by Hurricane Joaquin, you can see just how vulnerable we are to flooding and how much more vulnerable we'll be due to climate change.

Let's look at some numbers for the nine states stretching from North Carolina to Massachusetts where Joaquin could make landfall.


Number of water and sewage treatment plans in coastal counties


flood insurance policies backed by FEMA as of July 31, 2015


flood insurance claims paid out by FEMA since 1978

$13.8 billion

Total amount of those claims

$11.9 billion

Additional assistance from FEMA provided to rebuild public facilities after floods and hurricanes since 1998. This does not include tens of billions of dollars in other federal assistance from HUD, USEPA, the Army Corps, etc.

These numbers are even more sobering when you consider that they only reflect our present risk and a small portion of the total amount of federal disaster assistance paid out in the nine states most at risk from Hurricane Joaquin.

Future hurricanes are likely to be more dangerous, given that sea levels are likely to be as much as 4 - 6 feet higher by the end of the century.

The National Climate Assessment projects up to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century (and more after the end of the century), but even this doesn't take into account the possibility of rapid melting of the polar regions. Other studies indicate sea levels could be even higher. Even 4 feet of sea level rise still has deadly serious ramifications. Every inch of sea level rise can translates into water moving up to 100 inches (over 8 feet) inland on flat coastal beaches. An analysis by the National Academy of Sciences determined that about 5 million people in the US live in the area that would be inundated by 4 feet of sea level rise.

For future storms, like Joaquin, the 8 foot tides currently forecast for the Virginia coast would be on top of 4 feet of sea level rise, which means flooding will be higher and extend far further inland.

How do we protect that many people from the encroaching oceans?

Luckily, it's not a problem that requires one all-encompassing solution. Just as our efforts to curb the pollution that causes climate change are made up of a multitude of strategies from reducing fossil fuel use to increasing the use of renewable non-polluting energy, our efforts to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change will require an array of adaptable solutions.

Here at NRDC we're working on a range of ways to deal with sea level rise and the rising risk of coastal and riverine flooding. We're looking at everything from ways to make our water infrastructure better prepared for these risks to climate-smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that would encourage people to move away from vulnerable areas over the next several decades.

We certainly are worried about people in the Bahamas and hope that Hurricane Joaquin heads out to sea without making landfall U.S. But its presence on our shoreline is a powerful reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much more vulnerable we will be in the future due to climate change's impacts.