By Sarah Alexander
Floods are the most costly, deadly and frequent natural disaster. Development of flood-prone land, human modifications to river and coastal ecosystems, and declining natural infrastructure all raise the cost of floods. And, the impacts to people, livelihoods, industry, and the economy will only worsen as our climate changes. The burden and impact is disproportionately felt in under-served and low-income communities. The current management of flood risk in the U.S. is inadequate. Scientific advancements that quantify flood risk, project future conditions, identify mitigation strategies, and effectively communicate risk provide an opportunity. “Silver Jackets” state- and federal-level interagency initiatives have developed policies and recommendations for flood risk communication and outreach best practice. I recommend directing the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Taskforce to build upon regional initiatives and develop a set of federal flood risk communication policies that will move the U.S. towards long-term resilience in a changing climate, particularly for underserved communities.
Communities across the U.S. are vulnerable to flooding caused by coastal sea-level rise, rivers, and extreme rainfall or storm events. Since 2016, 11 flood events in the U.S. cost nearly $45 billion and resulted in 117 deaths (30% of all “billion dollar” flood events since 1980; NCEI, 2021). For example, in 2019, Mississippi River flooding across the midwest and south impacted the agricultural sector, damaging roads, bridges, dams and levees in at least ten states (NCEI, 2021). Earlier that year, flooding of the Missouri River from a severe storm resulted in devastating damage, including at Offutt Air Force Base (the third U.S. military base impacted in a “billion dollar event” in six months) (NCEI, 2021). And in August of 2016, the most damaging flood since Superstorm Sandy hit Louisiana destroying over 50,000 homes, 100,000 vehicles, and 20,000 businesses (NCEI, 2021). At present, 10% of the U.S. is at substantial risk of flooding (Figure 1; First Street Foundation, 2020). In the next 30 years, an additional 11% or 23.5 million properties across the U.S. are expected to be at-risk for flooding, and of those, 64% are at extreme risk of flooding (First Street Foundation, 2020). Climate changes are predicted to increase the numbers of extreme rainfall and storm events, which will cause more flooding in highly developed floodplain areas where impermeable surfaces inhibit water from naturally infiltrating into the ground (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2014). Coastal flooding has doubled in recent decades; in a warmer atmosphere, severe storms are 40% more likely and 10% more intense resulting in extreme storms dropping 27% more moisture than a century ago (Denchak, 2019). In the next 80 years, category four and five hurricanes are projected to be more intense along the Atlantic coast (Denchak, 2019). By the end of the century, U.S. floodplain areas are expected to grow by 45% due to climate change and warmer temperatures will likely cause faster snowmelt and increased springtime flooding (Denchak, 2019). Climate changes are causing heavier rainfall events, more frequent hurricanes, and sea-level rise, resulting in devastating flood impacts.
Standard homeowner insurance policies do not typically provide coverage for flood events, requiring federal government disaster relief funds to pay for flood impacts. In 1968, the development of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) helped share the cost of flood relief between state and local communities and the federal government (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1986). All U.S. communities were encouraged to join the program with affordable insurance rates, as long as they adopted flood-resilience building standards for new infrastructure (FEMA, 1986). While the NFIP reduces annual flood costs to the federal government by $527 million (71% reduction), cost shortfalls due to frequent flood events have resulted in an accumulated debt of $20.5 billion (a trend that is expected to continue with worsening flood events) (FEMA, 1986). Additionally, insurance through the NFIP may not be affordable for lower-income communities who are uniquely vulnerable to flood risk. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers discounts on flood insurance, which have contributed to revenue shortfalls, they are not based on need or ability to pay (FEMA, 2018). Although FEMA developed an affordability framework in 2018 to help make flood insurance more affordable, the guidelines acknowledge that rate increases will create challenges for policyholders burdened by current insurance costs (FEMA, 2018). Flood events continue to impact livelihoods and the U.S. economy, decreasing employment by 3.4% after events and stressing municipal finances through revenue declines (FEMA, 1986).
Low-income and underserved populations are disproportionately affected by changing climate conditions. For example, in urban areas lower-income communities often reside near pollution sites which impact air and water quality and live in public housing with insufficient insulation, air conditioning, etc (Chappell, 2018). When flood events occur, risks associated with access to clean water and sanitation, drowning, infection, and food access increase vulnerability. Whether in rural areas with agricultural economies or urban locations that rely on public transportation, low-income households are the most disrupted during and following disasters (Chappell, 2018). Households below the poverty line (household income < $20,000) have significantly more flood damage than middle-income peers and are less likely to be able to economically recover (FEMA, 1986). For low-income individuals, home ownership represents a significant portion of their assets, resulting in catastrophic loss when flood events occur (FEMA, 1986). The Fourth National Climate Assessment predicts that climate change will exacerbate existing inequities and recommends government officials engage low-income communities in developing solutions (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2017). Additionally, these communities generally have “less access to information, resources, institutions, and other factors to prepare for and avoid the health risks of climate change” (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2017). There is an urgent need for an amendment to the current federal flood risk reduction plan that recognizes the disproportionate and unequal impacts of climate change and offers effective flood risk communication strategies to allow low-income communities to be part of the solution.
Figure 1: Properties with substantial flood risk in the United States
Source: First Street Foundation, 2020
The Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Taskforce, authorized by Congress in 1975, prepares proposals for Congress for a nation-wide program on floodplain management. For nearly 40 years, this task force has studied the impacts of human actions on natural systems and made recommendations for actions that will reduce loss of life and property due to floods, largely focusing on hard infrastructure. The last major nationwide floodplain management plan was created in 1994. This plan offered a framework and strategies to address susceptibility to flood risk, the impacts of flooding, and damage remediation, focusing on both built infrastructure and natural restoration. However, it did not account for projected climate changes, disproportionate impact on certain communities, or include best practice for flood risk communication; an updated framework that includes these elements is long overdue. I recommend that Congress direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Taskforce (FIFMT) to create an updated national flood resilience plan for the United States that outlines strategies for effective risk communication and engagement of underserved populations.
The goal of the FIFMT is to suggest actions that will reduce the loss of life and property and/or protect and restore floodplains (FEMA, 2021). The work plan is supposed to be a living document that reflects best knowledge and understanding of floodplain management to provide federal guidance and leadership (FEMA, 2021). The FIFMT brings together a variety of agencies to ensure interagency collaboration, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), departments of agriculture, commerce, defence, energy, housing and urban development, interior, transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, and Tennessee Valley Authority. The USACE and FEMA co-lead the task force and coordinate interagency collaboration at national, regional, state, local and tribal levels (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, n.d.). Governed by the idea of shared responsibility among agencies, coordination helps reduce flood risk through outreach, natural or structural adaptation, contingency plans, building codes, zoning, and insurance (Figure 2; USACE, n.d.). Federal partners develop programs to assist states in reducing flood damage. States and local governments determine land use, floodplain management and enforce requirements (which in turn impact the effectiveness of federal programs) (USACE, n.d.). The FIFMT recognizes the importance of communicating flood risk and actions for adaptation to the public, however the shared governance model makes it difficult to have a coordinated approach. While the FIFMT aims to guide yet not direct local decision-making are admirable, the current patchwork of policies, practice, and recommendations do not include a coordinated, research-based flood risk communication plan that engages vulnerable communities in developing solutions.
Figure 2: Current model of shared governance for flood risk reduction
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2021
Developing a coordinated risk communication plan
Robust knowledge and best practice on risk communication can inform FIFMT’s federal guidelines on flood risk communication. NOAA has developed seven principles for risk communication best practice including the importance of having a plan, speaking to community interests, explaining the risks, offering options to reduce risk, working with trusted sources, testing messages and evaluating performance, and using multiple ways to communicate (Brown et al., 2016). Disaster risk reduction communication strategies differ pre- and post-disaster, thus the FIFMT guidance should offer strategies to engage communities before flood events occur, during the crisis, and following the event (Robinson, 2017; Steelman and McCaffrey, 2013). Additionally, experience with disasters (or near misses) often lead individuals to underestimate risk in the future, so the communication plan should offer pathways for helping people re-interpret their experience and personalize the message (Dillon et al, 2011). Perceived risk from advanced warnings can impact how individuals respond to risky information, highlighting the importance of a coordinated communication strategy (Mileti and O’Brien, 1992).
Development of a federal flood risk communication plan must engage and communicate effectively with vulnerable communities as one part of fostering community resilience to floods. In particular, targeted warning information that is iterative and conscious of language and other barriers is crucial (Burger and Gochfeld, 2019). Communication should not be viewed as an “add-on” rather a critical part of the flood risk management process that requires participatory approaches. The importance of timely, clear information from a trusted source and partnerships with community-based organizations are particularly important for engaging with socially vulnerable groups (Klaiman et al., 2010). Understanding risk perception, targeting vulnerable communities, and sustainable engagement are needed as part of a successful flood risk reduction plan.
Engagement of vulnerable communities and implementation
Partnerships with state, local, and tribal governments provide an opportunity to integrate local information as well as coordinate relationship building with key stakeholders and community organizations. FIFMT could leverage state and local partners to draw on community participation by listening to those impacted by flooding, relying on local information, linking local challenges with bigger goals, fostering community and personal responsibility, and learning what strategies are effective in different contexts (MacKinnon et al., 2018).For example, in rural areas limited access, broadband, or communication facilities will require creative approaches such as public education or strategic partnerships (Cole and Murphy, 2014). As Figure 2 shows, outreach and communication are key to reducing flood risk and ensuring all aspects of the management plan are successful. Social media can also be an effective tool to engage communities and part of a multi-method approach (FEMA, 2019).
Ultimately, risk communication is a process that will require the FIFMT to promote relationship building in communities using various proven strategies for effective communication and action. Effective risk communication has been shown to improve individuals’ knowledge and assessment of flood risk, help them evaluate management or adaptation actions, and significantly reduce longer-term flood impacts (Rollason et al., 2018). The FIFMT has an opportunity to leverage knowledge and best practice across the federal government, industry, and non-profit in setting guidelines. Other policy changes, such as investing in flood-resilience infrastructure and affordable insurance, will be needed. Yet, building upon regional initiatives and risk communication best practice to develop a set of federal flood risk communication policies is one step to move the U.S. towards long-term resilience in a changing climate, particularly for underserved communities.
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