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OPINION: Monster hurricanes are now inevitable - but flooding is not

by Stephen Eisenman | Anthropocene Alliance
Thursday, 17 September 2020 15:11 GMT

A sign was bent by Hurricane Sally, in Baldwin County, near Gulf Shores, Alabama, U.S., September 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Here's how to cut the risks of disaster

Stephen F. Eisenman is a professor at Northwestern University, and co-founder of the non-profit Anthropocene Alliance.

Hurricane Sally is now parked above the Alabama-Florida border, where “catastrophic, historic flooding is unfolding,” according to the National Hurricane Center. More giant storms - Paulette, Teddy and Vicky - are stacked up over the Atlantic like bowling balls waiting to strike.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has already been one of the most active on record, and it is only half over.

Last month, Hurricane Laura - one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. mainland - devastated Lake Charles, Louisiana, where many are still without electricity and clean water. There have been so many storms this year that the people who christen hurricanes are running out of names, and will soon resort to naming storms for Greek letters.

Welcome to the new normal. Because of human-induced climate change, we can expect bigger, wetter, more powerful storms for the foreseeable future.

But while monster storms are now inevitable (though cuts in greenhouse gas emissions could keep them from getting much worse), flooding - and the human suffering it causes - is not.

In fact, much of the flooding we see is a result of disastrous policies and practices -  from incentives to build in the flood plain to the wholesale destruction of wetlands. No one knows this better than the grassroots leaders who comprise Higher Ground, the largest network of flood survivors in the country.

From their hard-won wisdom, these leaders have put together a manifesto on preventing - and surviving - floods. Here’s a summary:

1. Don’t build where it floods. It seems obvious, but corrupt city councils and planning boards allow it all the time. In fact, between 2000 and 2016, the United States saw more population growth in flood plains than outside of them. And don’t assume that current flood maps are right: more than half of all flooding occurs outside the flood plain. Also: factor in future climate change.

2. Flooding is bad enough; racism makes it worse. Historic segregation, the result of redlining, has led to gross underinvestment in flood control infrastructure in Black and brown communities.

It’s time for reparations in the form of state and federal infrastructure investment and housing programs, such as expanded Community Development Block Grants. Those investments can prioritize the hiring of local residents, and provide apprenticeships and job training when needed.

3. Protect or restore the natural ecologies that reduce flooding. When it comes to flood control, wetlands, forests and sand dunes beat seawalls, dams and sewers any day of the week. The economic benefits of protecting natural areas greatly outweigh the costs.

And yet rather than protect or restore them, we continue to pave them over. Enforce environmental laws, and pass new ones to build natural buffers against floods. And require all federal and state funded resilience projects to prioritize nature-based solutions.

4. Disclose flood risk. Before moving into a new home or community, people should know about present and future flood risks. Unfortunately, that information is often hard to find. Currently, 20 states do not require sellers to disclose a property’s flood risks or past flood damages to a potential buyer. The other 30 have differing disclosure laws.

We need better, more accurate and future-oriented data and mapping if we are to mitigate future flood events.

5. Make flood insurance fair. National Flood Insurance Program premiums do not reflect actual flood risks. Many properties in high-risk areas receive subsidized rates, despite the risk of catastrophic losses which are borne by taxpayers.

We need to base NFIP insurance rates on actual risk combined with means-tested affordability assistance.

6. Bail out people, not expensive properties, after a flood. After a disaster, governments use benefit-cost analyses (BCA) to determine which communities receive support and how much. But owners of low-value homes generally receive settlements too low to allow them to relocate to better, safer neighborhoods thus perpetuating past housing discrimination.

Revise BCA protocols to factor in the value of saving lives, preserving historical and natural assets, and protecting vital and diverse communities.

7. Shift to renewable energy and move threatened communities out of harm’s way.

Until the climate is stabilized, flooding will continue to increase. Homes, towns and even whole cities will need to be moved. The sooner we plan for relocations, the better off we’ll be.

8. Don’t diss the knowledge and know-how of survivors; instead, use it.

Flood mitigation plans are usually drawn up by local, state and federal agencies with limited citizen input. But when you’ve been flooded multiple times, you become an expert. Mine that experience.

In short, we can’t stop the storms from coming, but there is lots we can do to keep people safe and whole. To see the details of Higher Ground’s plan, go to: https://anthropocenealliance.org