Can Congress Find the Political Will to Solve Our Flood Problems?
By Tara Lohan
It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.
Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.
The program was established in 1968 as a way to provide flood insurance to properties with high flood risk — some of which is subsidized by taxpayers — and to use management programs to help reduce risk.
But Jessie Ritter, director of water resources and coastal policy at the National Wildlife Federation, says the program has unintentionally done the opposite over the years. By offering government-funded insurance where private companies wouldn't, it's made it easier to build in flood-prone areas. Local land-use decisions in some places haven't helped, either.
Most people agree that some reform of the National Flood Insurance Program is needed. Four former FEMA administrators recently sent a letter to Congress asking for just that. But legislators — who disagree how to accomplish that goal — have been kicking the can down the road by issuing short-term extensions since the program's last five-year authorization lapsed in September 2017.
Meanwhile homes and communities continue to flood and the insurance program's losses keep stacking up.
"In the absence of reforms, costs in taxpayer dollars and lives lost will only get worse," the former FEMA administrators wrote in their letter urging action.
It's past time to make the necessary changes, Ritter says. "Congress has been unable politically to get to a place where we can meaningfully reform this program and address some of the underlying symptoms that are making disasters so costly in our country," she said. "A perpetuation of the status quo makes no sense at a time when we are spending billions annually on relief in response to a continual string of disasters." This spring the most destructive Mississippi River floods in 25 years resulted in thousands of lost homes, damaged businesses and flooded farms.
House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters said the most recent extension, which she co-authored, gives more time for a bipartisan bill to attempt a larger reform of the program — and that this will be the last short-term extension. Waters has been a longstanding advocate for reforming the program and sponsored 2017 legislation that cancelled $16 billion of its debt, which had climbed to $30 billion that year in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and other disasters. Further reforms promised by Congress that year did not materialize.
Mapping the Flood Line
The program's growing debt is only part of the issue.
FEMA has been criticized for using outdated flood maps that don't accurately portray the risk that communities face, either now or in the near future. Kathleen Schaefer, a researcher at the University of California, Davis who spent a decade working as regional engineer for FEMA producing flood insurance maps for California, says that the current process to update maps is time-consuming, bureaucratic and costly.
And the data that the agency does have isn't granular enough to communicate property-level risk.
"One property to the next may have very different levels of risk based upon their actual elevation," explains Ritter. Soil type and land use on each property can also affect flooding. "And right now FEMA just doesn't have that level of sophistication in their flood maps."
It's not that the technology to do that doesn't exist — North Carolina is using it— but it hasn't been mandated nationally for FEMA.
Another issue is the accuracy of the maps. If a property falls into what FEMA determines is a 100-year floodplain, owners with federally backed mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance. "Some of those maps are super outdated, and that floodplain line in some places, because of climate change, is probably no longer accurate," said Ritter.
The floodplain line also creates a false sense of security for those who own property outside of it and aren't required to purchase flood insurance but may still have some level of risk. FEMA's current system reduces flood risk to "in" or "out" — black or white. "And that's not how risk works," said Ritter. "Risk is shades of gray."
Schaefer and other researchers from the UC Davis Natural Hazards Research and Mitigation Group looked at severe flooding that claimed 13 lives in the Baton Rouge area in 2016. They found that a third of the flooding was outside FEMA's 100-year flood zone.
Extensive flooding in southeast Texas from Hurricane Harvey
Photo by Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Many floodplain residents and political leaders falsely believe that flooding cannot occur beyond the mapped 100-year line," the researchers wrote. "But nationwide, roughly 25 percent of National Flood Insurance Program flood-damage claims occur outside of 100-year zones."
Environmental Costs — and Solutions
It's not just bad for property owners and taxpayers. There are environmental implications, too.
"Subsidizing insurance rates inadvertently encouraged development in floodplains that never should have been developed in the first place," said Ritter. "Not only does that decrease community resilience, it impacts habitat and wildlife." Natural floodplains are incredibly rich ecosystems that support fish, birds, plants and a host of other species.
Ritter says her organization would like to see more money from the program spent trying to prevent flood damages instead of paying billions to rebuild after a disaster — especially in areas with recurrent flooding. There's also a lot of untapped potential to restore natural features such as wetlands and floodplain habitat, which can reduce flood risk, protect communities and create environmental benefits, she says.
"Where those types of nature-based approaches can work, they should be incentivized and given first consideration," said Ritter. "If communities can reduce their rates by proactively reducing their risk, then it's a win-win across the board for everyone."
Having worked at FEMA, Schaefer thinks the 50-year-old federal program, tied to the congressional rulemaking process, can't provide the localized approach that's currently needed.
"Any changes that you're going to make to the program, you'd have to make on a nationwide scale," she said. "And people on the Gulf Coast think about their flood risk differently than people in California's Central Valley — you're not going to be able to find the compromise that is going to get you where you need to go."
Schaefer instead sees an opportunity for a bigger role for the private market and community flood insurance programs that would allow for more detailed modeling to assess and mitigate risk.
Climate change should be creating a sense of urgency for program reforms, said Ritter. Average temperatures are increasing and the U.S. is seeing rising sea levels in some coastal communities. It's also getting wetter — 2018 was the sixth year in a row that average rainfall in the U.S. was more than the 20th-century average. Hurricanes are predicted to get stronger with climate change and natural disasters are already costing a fortune — $91 billion in the U.S. alone last year. Hurricanes Michael and Florence accounted for $49.4 billion of those costs and resulted in more than 100 deaths.
"There is an important link between the National Flood Insurance Program and climate resiliency," said Ritter. Reforming the program "is a big opportunity to improve how we as a nation respond to and prepare for worsening impacts of climate change."
For grassroots organizing on this issue follow #VeteransforClimateJustice via Army/Air Force Vet @ColleenBoland— Dr. Sandra Steingraber (@ssteingraber1) March 20, 2019
Flooding of Nebraska Air Force Base Illustrates Security Risk Posed by Climate Change https://t.co/ZCVyaRZc5x
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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