December 14, 2022

Back when I was a young reporter, I first discovered the risks of flooding. I remember a small development that never flooded before -- but did after another development was built next to it, and the stormwater runoff resulted in five feet of water on their properties.

One of the local Democrats wanted me to write about it. He explained that the state legislature had passed a law requiring municipalities to update their stormwater plans, but the towns refused to do it. Why? Because developers want to built wherever they want, and if municipalities limited that in any way, the political contributions stopped. It was really that simple.

And that was just plain old stormwater runoff!

I'm a real pain in the ass about this stuff. One friend just bought a house with a creek running behind it, and I was nagging her to get FEMA insurance. "It's never flooded here," she said. "Yeah, but look at the flood map. It's flooded all around you, and eventually you'll get flooded, too," I told her. (I don't think she believes me.)

Now, decades later, we are seeing frequent extreme weather events that result in flooding where it never happened before. From this remarkable piece of journalism by the Washington Post, "America Underwater":

FEMA is required to reassess flood maps every five years, but new ones take an average of seven years to finish, officials have told Congress. The agency works with local and state officials during the revision process, and communities may resist expanding designated flood zones because it adds costs and can hamper development.

“You would think, well, FEMA could just update the maps in issue,” Fugate said. “That’s not true. … Local governments have been opposed to any maps that show an increasing risk.”

And we know why. This is why voters should be paying attention, because these maps are nowhere near adequate for pluvial flooding, which results from intense, short-term rainfall:

This makes FEMA’s designated flood hazard zones a bad match for the intense weather events that scientists say U.S. communities will face, like the catastrophically intense rainfall from remnants of Hurricane Ida that left 13 dead in New York City last year.

“It is precisely that type of flooding, urban flooding and flash flooding from shortish duration but very high-intensity downpours, that is expected to increase the most in a warming climate,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

It’s also the kind of flooding that Jones experienced in St. Louis. Afterward, he went over a map of the area with a FEMA representative.

“My area wasn’t even a zone, because it’s nowhere close to a river, it’s nowhere near close to a pond, it’s nowhere close to any water,” Jones later told The Post.

This is happening in urban areas everywhere:

The storm woke up Brittany Taylor in the apartment she had moved into two days earlier. She looked out the window and saw water everywhere, then heard it inside the ground floor of the loft. Bewildered, Taylor filmed herself wading through murky floodwaters that came nearly to her knee, destroying belongings she had only started to unpack. “I literally don’t know what to do,” said Taylor, her voice quivering. “Should I call 911?”

Taylor’s home is part of a wave of redevelopment in central parts of Dallas. In nearby Deep Ellum, Emily White’s apartment flooded the same night. In an interview with The Post, White said she remembered the leasing agent telling her there wasn’t a risk of flooding — and like much of this part of the city, that was true, according to FEMA’s maps. She decided against buying flood insurance.

But paved-over urban areas in Dallas and other cities are vulnerable to rainfall-driven flooding, said Nick Fang, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Moral of the story: If you can afford it, get some quotes for FEMA insurance. Ironically, since their maps don't reflect extreme weather risks, you can probably afford it.

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