Homes Are Flooding Outside FEMA’s 100-Year Flood Zones, Exposing Racial Inequality
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Unfortunately, many of the people living in those properties have no idea that their homes are at risk until the floodwaters rise.
I am a sociologist who works on disaster vulnerability. In a new study, I looked at the makeup of communities in Houston that aren't in the 100-year flood zone, but that still flood. What I found tells a story of racial disparities in the city. Research in other cities has shown similar flooding problems in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Poor stormwater infrastructure, expanding urbanization and limited flood mitigation efforts are a few of the reasons why.
Flooding Outside the Zones
About 15 million Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.
In Greater Houston, however, 47% of claims made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now recommends that every household in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.
New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.
One of those models, from the First Street Foundation, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other researchers find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss
Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.
First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.
Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect were from 1983. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the majority of maps are older.
Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception research backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.
Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.
As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming more common and severe. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of once every 5.5 years. So far, FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having on extreme weather and sea level rise.
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones
So, who is at risk?
Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.
In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.
With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.
Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. In Baltimore and Chicago, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.
What Can Be Done About It
Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.
For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for climate change and present ratings on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is exploring rating systems. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently called for a new generation of flood maps that takes climate change into account.
Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where 386 new square miles of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also impact older neighborhoods downhill during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.
Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from growing after the unequal impacts of disasters.
Kevin T. Smiley is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Louisiana State University.
Disclosure statement: Kevin T. Smiley receives funding from an Early-Career Fellowship from Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and is supported as a Fellow in the Enabling Program for the Next Generation of Hazards and Disasters Researchers as part of the National Science Foundation's Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment program.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Rebecca Niemiec and Kevin Crooks
Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether the state should reintroduce gray wolves (Canis lupus) after a nearly 80-year absence. Ballot Proposition 114 would require the state to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves, focused in Western Colorado and initiated by the end of 2023.
Back by Popular Demand?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDUzOTQxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzI4NTkyMX0.BeRR61CH6a-TWwSw1p4kmng4x4tXRaSMKyTRHKIHmOw/img.jpg?width=980" id="1f7fe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="339e3443dc63f3be06e24a82f0b37a03" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9aec767b3325e364a8605524504f95ab"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wTx_jqpqqfU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Clashing Values<p>Proposition 114 has strong support in Colorado. <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/public-perspectives-on-wolves-and-wolf-reintroduction-8-004/" target="_blank">Statewide surveys </a> conducted by phone, by mail and online over the past two decades have found that 66% to 84% of respondents supported reintroducing wolves. This support is consistent across different regions of the state and diverse demographic groups.</p><p>In a <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank">survey of Colorado residents</a> that we conducted in 2019, the prospect that wolves could contribute to a balanced ecosystem was the most commonly cited reason for supporting reintroduction. Other arguments included people's cultural and emotional connections to wolves, and <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/moral-arguments-related-to-wolf-restoration-and-management-8-011/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">moral arguments</a> that restoring a species humans had eradicated was the right thing to do.</p><p>While overall public support is strong, over half of Colorado's 64 counties have passed <a href="https://www.drovers.com/article/wolf-reintroduction-ballot-colorado" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resolutions against restoring wolves</a>. Many ranching and hunting associations are actively campaigning against the ballot measure.</p><p>In our 2019 study, we found that media coverage in the state focused more strongly on <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">perceived negative impacts</a> associated with wolf reintroduction than on beneficial effects. Surveys show that resident concerns include threats to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-human-safety-8-003/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human safety and pets</a>; <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-livestock-8-010/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wolf attacks on livestock</a>; and the potential for wolves to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-big-game-and-hunting-8-001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce deer and elk populations</a>, threatening hunting opportunities.</p>
Who Decides?<p>This measure is the first giving voters in the U.S. an opportunity to weigh in on bringing back a native species. Addressing the issue through a ballot measure adds a unique twist to public and media discussions about wolves.</p><p>Supporters call it a democratic way to ensure that the <a href="https://www.cpr.org/2020/09/29/should-wolves-be-brought-back-to-colorado-a-rancher-and-a-biologist-have-their-say/" target="_blank">public's values are recognized</a>. They also argue that voters are deciding only whether wolves should be reintroduced, while allowing experts at the <a href="https://cpw.state.co.us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state wildlife agency</a> to create a reintroduction plan <a href="https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/election/howl-you-vote-wolf-advocates-opponents-ask-colorado/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">based on the best available science</a>.</p>
<div id="4c11f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dec8674441e02372e50b796d848e4130"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1316474105315483649" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wol… https://t.co/74LMG1PYtW</div> — High Country News (@High Country News)<a href="https://twitter.com/highcountrynews/statuses/1316474105315483649">1602706860.0</a></blockquote></div>
Finding Consensus<p>Studies suggest that ballot initiatives like 114 will <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.032" target="_blank">become more common</a> as public values toward wildlife change and more diverse groups seek to influence wildlife management. For us, the key question is how to recognize and incorporate these differing values as agencies make decisions.</p><p>Research drawing on insights from <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/dialogue-and-social-conflict-about-wolves-8-009/" target="_blank">psychology, political science and sociology</a> suggests that it is critical to run<a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QppmBszEF6zsNnhBJ7Q2-pSWRR-Zx_ln/view" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> truly participatory processes</a> that engage government agencies and people who have a stake in the issue in shared decision-making. Fostering dialogue between groups that value wildlife differently can build empathy and mutual understanding and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.015" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster compromise</a>. Broadening the conversation in this way is essential for coexisting with carnivores with minimal impacts on predators and people.</p>
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