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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The chance that UK summer days could hit the 40 degree Celsius mark on the thermometer is on the rise, a new study from the country's Met Office Hadley Centre has found.
- As Extreme Weather Turns Deadly in the UK, Climate Activists Are ... ›
- UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency ... ›
By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
- U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Now No. 1 in World - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Pass 100,000 - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Eoin Higgins
Climate advocates pointed to news Sunday that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy was filing for bankruptcy as further evidence that the fossil fuel industry's collapse is being hastened by the coronavirus pandemic and called for the government to stop propping up businesses in the field.
- Fracking Industry's Propaganda Hypes Shale Gas Production and ... ›
- Another Blow to the Fracking Industry—Chesapeake Energy's ... ›
- Former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon Is Back to ... ›
By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud
Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?
- The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help? - EcoWatch ›
- The Power of Collective Action Gangnam Style - EcoWatch ›
- Scientist Finds Remarkable Way to Connect People Emotionally ... ›
Fire experts have already criticized President Trump's planned fireworks event for this Friday at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial as a dangerous idea. Now, it turns out the event may be socially irresponsible too as distancing guidelines and mask wearing will not be enforced at the event, according to CNN.
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
- Attendees at Trump's First Rally Since March Can't Sue if They Get ... ›
By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
- Food Waste Set to Increase by 33 Percent Within 10 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Reducing Food Waste Is Good for Economy and Climate, Report Says ›
- 23 Organizations Eliminating Food Waste During COVID-19 ... ›
Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Monday after a severe drought on the island left 140,000 people without access to running water, despite the necessary role that hand washing and hygiene plays in stopping the novel coronavirus, as The Independent reported.
- When the Government Failed Puerto Rico, Local Communities ... ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›