Flooding is the most pervasive, geographically distributed, and closely regulated natural disaster in the United States. Nonetheless, the damaging trends continue despite such safeguards and efforts as: (a) the creation of a National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP); (b) billions of dollars (and significant manpower) invested in flood management efforts; (c) numerous scientific analyses and official reports dedicated to alleviating the flood problem; and (d) the enactment, at all levels of government, of numerous laws and regulations.
Since 2011, more than 95 percent of all federally declared disasters have been water-related in one way or another. That total includes 96 of the 99 major disaster declarations issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2011 – and 44 of the 47 similar FEMA declarations in 2012. Occurring in those same two years, thousands of smaller flood events – also damaging, but below the level of a declared disaster – caused a massive loss of life and property, the disruption of numerous goods and services, and a major decline in the overall “well-being” of the citizens living in many large and small communities throughout the nation.
According to a 1998 article, Secular Trends of Precipitation Amount, Frequency, and Intensity in the United States, published by the American Meteorological Society, flooding events in the United States have been increasing in both frequency and intensity over the past 50 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the 30-year flood loss from 1983 to 2012 averaged $58.2 billion in damages and caused an average of 89 deaths per year over the same time frame. The highest losses were inflicted by two major hurricanes that also, according to FEMA, were the two most costly flood-related disasters in the nation’s history: Katrina in 2005 ($145 billion in property damage and 1,833 deaths); and Sandy in 2012 ($68 billion in property damage and 148 deaths).
What Might Have Been, But Was Not
What in retrospect made those two hurricanes even more damaging, unfortunately, was that: (a) both of them passed through areas that had been long predicted by weather experts to flood; (b) the states most heavily damaged had carried out a number of pre-event exercises focused primarily on floods; and (c) despite several days of advance warning prior to landfall, the states most severely affected were still relatively unprepared.
The effects of Katrina on the lower income and more vulnerable housing areas in New Orleans were clear both from the air and on the ground, especially in the Crescent City’s Lower Ninth Ward. Sandy made landfall much farther north, destroying entire communities in both New Jersey and New York. Lower Manhattan, in fact, suffered some of the heaviest damage and was still using temporary cell towers nine months after the flooding of Wall Street.
Moreover, billions of dollars of critical assets were left totally unprotected during these and a number of other national flood events. In short, thousands of lives throughout the United States have been lost, shortened, and/or diminished in quality in recent years, largely as a result of government officials failing to adequately plan, prepare, and mitigate long before such catastrophic events actually occur.
Creative Innovations, Plus a Map to the Future
FEMA, the federal agency holding the greatest responsibility for disaster preparedness, defines mitigation as “the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.” The agency has worked to reduce the harmful impact of floods (and other natural disasters) by, among other things:
(a) Developing and promulgating a rigorous mitigation education and outreach campaign;
(b) Sustaining an ongoing mitigation planning program, whichentifies various policies and preventive actions that can be implemented over the long term to reduce risk and future losses;
(c) Making available to communities throughout the nation such innovative programs as Risk MAP – the “vision” for which, FEMA says, “is to deliver quality data that increases public awareness and leads to action that reduces risk to life and property”; and
(d) Creating a National Mitigation Framework that provides context for how a “whole community” can and should work together, as well as how mitigation relates to other aspects of national preparedness to foster a culture of preparedness that is centered on risk and resilience.
The Nation as a Whole – And All Local Communities
The nation as a whole, and communities large and small in every state, can learn some valuable lessons from the retail, distribution, and service industries on how to mitigate the threat to the collective critical infrastructure. A key goal in the management of supply chain networks, for example, is to pre-stage critical assets and material resources in locations where they can be used immediately or shipped quickly to another location in advance of, in the eye of, or immediately after a flood event or major storm actually occurs.
Major storms and the floods that follow are inevitable, and undoubtedly will be so for many years to come. Nonetheless, researchers, economists, city planners, and mitigation experts are in general agreement that such events will have a less damaging impact only if the federal government and the nation’s state, regional, tribal, and local communities take the proactive steps needed to mitigate – by effective planning, pre-staging of mitigation tools, and preparing to engage – these potentially devastating storms through the development and early implementation of effective solutions.
The most sustainable and most resilient communities are today, and will be for the foreseeable future, those that use every mechanism available to deal with the various threats and hazards facing them. Flooding has been, is, and undoubtedly will continue to be a major threat to almost all U.S. communities, whatever their size and importance, for many years to come – unless and until the nation as a whole, and all of its communities, significantly improve their mitigation and preparedness efforts in advance of the next Katrina, Sandy, or as-yet unnamed hurricane (or similar disaster).
Terri Turner, AICP, CFM, (pictured) is the development administrator for the Augusta (Ga.) Planning and Development Department and is also the community lead for Augusta’s Resilient Neighbors Network. Additionally, she serves as the liaison on the Urban Water Sustainability Council, the Region IV director and NAI (No Adverse Impact) Committee co-chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). She previously served as a member of the CRS Outreach Criteria Review Team and on the PPD-8 – National Mitigation Framework – Core Writing Team. She has received many awards for her work, including the 2012 Champions of Change Award given by the White House.
George Deussen is vice president of Muscle Wall, LLC, and a member of the Non-Structural Flood Proofing Committee of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. He possesses special expertise in flood control, containment, storm water management, mitigation, business continuity, emergency management, environmental risk management, business development, sales, marketing, and strategic development.