With last August’s 500-year flooding in Louisiana fresh in their minds, our pals over at FEMA are editing their flood insurance maps again. These maps are intended to be a reality-based assessment of the likely risk of damage from flooding, with people in the most vulnerable areas having to pay more, often significantly more, for flood insurance. The process is subject to a couple of intrinsic problems, however, and is itself characteristic of a much larger problem.
Even as FEMA is beginning to tell states to account for climate change when preparing for future disasters, FEMA’s own mapping process is, shockingly, not doing so. Considering that climate change will likely result in much larger, more frequent, and less predictable weather disasters, adapting the flood insurance maps would require looking forward at the best available forecasts that science has to offer. Instead, FEMA looks only to the past, taking into account the historical flood records for a given area, when deciding what is probably going to happen in the future. Because our weather is rapidly beginning to deviate from previous norms, it does little good for FEMA to make plans based on flooding from 1982.
Another factor affecting the accuracy of the flood maps is the political process that allows for some wiggle room in deciding where the floodplains are based upon outcry from the people who live there, or, as lawmakers call them, “constituents.” If a home sits on land that is redrawn into a floodplain, perhaps because flooding is becoming more common there, the flood insurance that people need to recover from the sort of disasters that happen to people that live in floodplains can become prohibitively expensive, since repairing or replacing flooded homes costs a lot of money. When people who live in floodplains and who make the most flood insurance claims can (in a way) vote themselves out of being legally included in the floodplain for statistical, political, and economic reasons, it’s not going to be a very effective flood map. Since 1% of the flood policy holders make 25-30% of the claims, some having their homes replaced multiple times, it’s only proper that people most likely to need flood insurance pay up or move. It is in this spirit that bipartisan legislation, called the “Repeatedly Flooded Communities Preparation Act,” was introduced last week, sponsored by Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). It would require that the most troublesome areas be targeted for flood damage mitigation actions such as improved drainage or voluntary buyouts of property. If actions are not taken towards reducing flood damage claims, dropping insurance for that area may be on the table as a penalty.
Of course, one problem with living in an area classified as a floodplain and having to pay a higher rate for flood insurance is that it makes living in the area much more expensive. This is as it should be, but local municipalities fear that the increased cost will stifle development. Imagine, reducing the extent of land development in a floodplain! However, as work goes away and economic activity dwindles, people who cannot afford to move out of a floodplain are less likely to be able to afford either flood insurance or mitigation in the first place. Voting yourself out of the legal floodplain solves the problem of having to buy expensive insurance, and people who are not required to buy flood insurance usually don’t, even if they still live in an actual floodplain. Eventually the rains will come and the damage is on you. If you can’t afford to replace your home at that point, get ready to shovel a bunch of wet drywall into a Dumpster and figure out some other plan. And, speaking of planning, what happens if you own a business affected by a flood or other natural disaster? Digital.com has an excellent guide to business IT disaster planning.
And this brings us, finally, to catabolic collapse. As a society becomes more prosperous, its citizens build more and better infrastructure. As a population grows from being prosperous, people (often the poorest) expand to areas where people didn’t necessarily live before, such as floodplains. As prosperity recedes, the cost of maintaining that infrastructure eventually surpasses society’s ability to pay for it. This means that not everything that gets broken is able to be mended. In better times, we may have been able to afford to spread the risk of the occasional flood and rebuild as many times as needed. Now, however, assets are stretched more thinly for almost everyone except our plutocrats, and we may decide to simply stop rebuilding homes and businesses that forego flood insurance after the next 500-year flood or Katrina-sized hurricane. The money society saves by dumping that unmaintainable infrastructure can be put to better use by reabsorbing it into projects with a longer shelf-life, and as long as we don’t look at the ruins around New Orleans, it might even feel a bit like recovery for a while, at least until the next disaster, be it economic or natural, from which we can’t afford to recover.
And what happens to the people who live among the ruins? That depends upon whether we hold together as a society, or fragment into self-interested factions. Considering our current political climate, I suspect it’s best to plan ahead.
Cajuns respond to Louisiana flood of 2016 with self reliance. Video courtesy of NOLA.com.