Imelda, Florence, Harvey: Bigger Rains and Bigger Floods

Flooding from Tropical Storm Imelda. Source: Jill Carlson (jillcarlson.org) from Roman Forest, Texas, USA

Forty inches of rain from Imelda. Thirty inches of rain from Florence. Fifty inches of rain from Harvey. In the era of man-made climate change, these “biblical” level events are occurring with greater frequency. Yet, current federal flood policies are perpetuating an unsustainable “flood, rebuild, repeat” approach to managing the nation’s flood risks. Absent reform, the devastating human and financial impacts associated with such large-scale events will only continue to worsen. 

Reinstating President Obama’s federal flood protection standard and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to place greater emphasis on helping people move out of harm’s way are just two federal policy actions that would better protect people, property, and public infrastructure from flooding. Congress has the power to enact such reforms—it just needs to find the will.

Bigger Rains, Bigger Floods, and Bigger Costs

Source: NOAA"s Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Time Series

Major events, like Tropical Storm Imelda, Hurricane Florence, and Hurricane Harvey, are part of a growing trend of large-scale storms and floods that have impacted the United States in recent decades. As depicted in the above graph, billion-dollar disaster events related to flooding, severe storms and hurricanes have grown exponentially. And, per the 4th National Climate Assessment, heavy rain events have increased in both intensity and frequency for many regions. Unfortunately, climate change will continue to load the dice in favor of such events occurring more often. The primary reason: a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. For every 2 degrees of temperature rise, the atmosphere holds 8 percent more moisture

More rain correlates with more flooding. More flooding correlates with more impacts to people, their homes, and public infrastructure, such as hospitals, roads, and schools. And for many, the burdens of recovery are neither cheap nor a once-in-a-lifetime event.

In Texas, for instance, 7,868 homes have been rebuilt an average of five times through the NFIP since the late 1970s. Each flood event caused an average of $61,000 in damage, totaling $2.1 billion over the years. These properties represent just 1 percent of all insured properties in Texas, yet account for an astounding 14 percent of total damages. 

These statistics are likely just a small subset of homeowners and renters that have survived repeated flooding in the State. As Nathan Purswell said to the Texas Standard:

Every time it floods, you have to move out and find a place to live, and then you’re gone for six months while they redo these apartments, and then you get to move back again and wait a year-and-half and then it floods again.

Flooding upends people’s lives, forcing them to relocate for months at a time before returning to their home, if at all, left to wonder when the next flood will hit. And the chances of another flood hitting is becoming more likely as the climate changes.  

In addition, the costs of recovery are not just borne by flood survivors but extend to taxpayers, too. Before Imelda struck, Texas had suffered 52 flood-related major disaster declarations since 1978. In just the last 20 years, Texas received over $5.5 billion dollars in Public Assistance Grants to assist in recovery—$2.2 billion of which has been spent to rebuild and repair public infrastructure, which is likely to increase as FEMA continues to provide money for Hurricane Harvey recovery. 

And that’s just Texas. Nationwide, the federal government has distributed $89 billion in Public Assistance Grants in response to flood-related disasters. The nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to such disasters must change.

Two places to start: Reinstating President Obama’s federal flood protection standard and reforming the NFIP to place greater emphasis on helping people move out of harm’s way.

Reinstate Federal Flood Protection Standards

In August 2017, President Trump rolled back a federal flood protection standard put in place by President Obama to ensure taxpayer-funded infrastructure, like bridges, roads, and water treatments plants, was more resilient to flooding. Trump’s myopia has served only to ensure that the billions of dollars that have been and will be spent rebuilding will do nothing to reduce the likelihood of such flood damage from happening again.

In contrast, the flood protection standard would have made people and property safer, and reduced the national burden of paying to rebuilding public infrastructure after major flood events. Under the standard, federal agencies were directed to use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, like affordable housing, hospitals, and emergency response facilities. Projects were to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever possible or, if not possible, buildings and facilities were to be raised or “floodproofed” so they were less likely to be damaged by rising flood waters.  

Congress should step in by passing legislation to codify the federal flood protection standard that President Trump revoked. Such action would demonstrate Congress’s commitment to protecting people and property from major flood events and responsibly investing American tax dollars.

Reform the National Flood Insurance Program to Help People Move Out of Harm’s Way

The NFIP is set to expire on September 30. Congress is likely to pass yet another short-term extension to keep the program from lapsing, which would be the program’s 13th temporary extension since 2017.  Congress must stop kicking the can and delaying reforms while the nation experiences repeated major flood disasters. More are surely in our future. Below are actions Congress can take to put the NFIP on the right track.  

First, Congress should mandate greater disclosure and transparency of flood risk data. Homeowners should have the right to know about their property’s history of flood damages. Too often, people buy a home only to find out later that it is susceptible to flooding. If previous owners filed an NFIP claim, FEMA has key flood history for the property. Homeowners, whether or not they currently have NFIP coverage, should have a right to this information.

In tandem, Congress should require nationwide disclosure requirements of flood risk information upon the sale or lease of a property. Over two-thirds of the states have either inadequate or no statutory or regulatory flood risk disclosure requirements. This information deficit distorts market signals and hinders fully informed decision-making about how to best avoid or mitigate damaging floods. 

Second, Congress should ensure greater accessibility and transparency of NFIP data to accurately inform the broader public (including researchers, city planners, and emergency responders) about flood risk. The public has a right to know where flood damages occur, the cost of those damages, and what communities are doing to reduce their vulnerability to flooding. Congress should require FEMA to make this information available. This information would provide a better understanding of flood risk and the exposure faced by the NFIP, especially important as sea levels rise and extreme rainstorms become more common, which could be key to encouraging more risk-adverse behavior and/or mitigation actions.

Third, Congress, through the NFIP, should direct FEMA to provide more assistance to homeowners who would like to relocate, instead of repeatedly rebuilding after every flood. Implementing such a program would empower homeowners to escape the cycle of flooding and rebuilding, and would lessen the NFIP’s financial exposure by removing some of these continuously flooded properties from its books. Unfortunately, many flood survivors must wait years before receiving a buyout, and by that time many have already rebuilt. 

NRDC’s new report Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater highlights the long timelines of FEMA-funded home buyouts. One solution would be to make direct assistance for buyouts available through the NFIPFlood insurance claims are generally settled within weeks of a flood, rather than the months or years needed for mitigation grant funding. If this approach became law, it would allow buyouts to happen within a time frame that makes more sense for homeowners.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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