Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

We already knew how to reduce damage from floods. We just didn’t do it.

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David Conrad and Larry Lawson write in the Washington Post:

The waters stretched as far as you could see, and then farther, in every direction. Rainfall totals were reported in feet, not the usual inches. Dozens of people died. Highways were submerged; thousands upon thousands of square miles of land were deluged. The damage totaled billions of dollars.

 It happened 24 years ago, in the Great Flood of 1993 in the upper Midwest.

After that disaster, the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report, “Sharing the Challenge ,” was prepared by Army Brig. Gen. Gerry E. Galloway and released in 1994. It made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes to address and reduce flood risks and improve the nation’s floodplain management everywhere, not just in the area along the Mississippi River that had been underwater. The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding by allowing new building in those areas, constructing insufficient flood-control projects that give residents a false sense of security and subsidizing redevelopment after disasters without mitigation. That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods.

Ultimately, though, very little changed. The lessons of 1993 were largely ignored, especially in parts of the country that were most vulnerable to flooding — such as Houston. Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. Now, as the federal government prepares to spend billions more cleaning up from catastrophic floods, we’re in danger of doing it again.


The Clinton administration’s report seemed like it might change things at first. It suggested the government should offer voluntary buyouts to owners of buildings that flooded repeatedly, clearing the most at-risk land of businesses and residences and leaving it as open space that could be devoted to flood-tolerant uses such as parks, recreation areas and wetlands. Especially in states such as Missouri, Iowa and Illinois that had been hit hard by the 1993 disaster, governors supported this new approach. More than 10,000 buildings were bought so their owners could move outside floodplains. The federal government spent $121 million on this type of mitigation after the 1993 floods — acquiring land or elevating, relocating or flood-proofing buildings. That investment probably saved $600 million in disaster relief: The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that each dollar spent on flood mitigation saves $5 in future flood damage.

Four years after the Great Flood commission issued its report, the two of us collaborated on a follow-up paper released by the National Wildlife Federation, “Higher Ground .” We looked at the nascent successes of the Midwest floodplain buyouts and relocations that took place after the 1993 floods. In Missouri, where there were major buyouts, one study showed that disaster relief after a 1995 flood cost 99 percent less than after the 1993 flood, even though 85 percent of the same area was affected. We also looked at the class of properties considered by the National Flood Insurance Program to be “repetitive loss properties” — places where the program had paid repeated claims within a 10-year span. We found that substantial benefits for property owners and taxpayers could be gleaned by simply removing damaged buildings, rather than repairing them only to see them flooded out again. We also concluded that many flood insurance policies were heavily subsidized and underestimated risk, leading to premiums that were far too low to make homeowners realize just how flood-prone their locations were.

Still, we also found that paying to relocate a relatively small number of people could significantly reduce the risk. About 2 percent of the flood insurance policies with repetitive losses were generating 40 percent of the claim payouts — many of them making expensive claims frequently. But these properties were seldom subject to risk mitigation (such as elevation or relocation), even after a flood caused damage worth more than 50 percent of their value, which is considered “substantially damaged” and is supposed to require mitigation. We also found that about 20 percent of these properties were located outside the designated “100 year” floodplains, areas where the chance of a flood in any given year is predicted to be 1 percent. The maps, in other words, were badly out of date, even then.

But owners often found few realistic options for getting out of harm’s way, even with some of the new programs that were established, because the government was slow to provide assistance and there seemed to be little real resolve for making difficult changes.

The city where we chose to release the report was Houston.

At the time, Houston ranked third (and surrounding Harris County fourth) in the nation in the number of repetitive-loss buildings, behind only Jefferson Parish, La., and New Orleans. It was too late to change policies in a way that would help New Orleans, which was already mostly built out — and mostly at or below sea level. But Houston and its adjacent areas, even with explosive growth and development underway, still had clear options to prevent future floods. They could conduct watershed planning and management. Officials could buy out or relocate the most endangered buildings, or put them on stilts, and could adopt higher building-elevation standards and stronger building codes. They could regulate the expansion of impervious areas in a way that would limit paving over pastures and wetlands to construct parking lots and endless subdivisions, and they could establish shoreline protections to reduce flood risks and costs going forward. This was the array of approaches needed to stay and hopefully reverse the growing costs of flooding. The nation’s floodplain organizations, at the same time, pleaded with city leaders to heed these warnings and act.

They didn’t. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 September 2017 at 8:16 am

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