by Sarah Woodhouse
Alberto, Beryl, Chris and Debby.
If you’re lucky enough not to have met them in person, these are the four tropical systems big enough to be named so far in the 2012 hurricane season. And we’re only in July. Though experts say it doesn’t necessarily signal a pattern for the season as a whole, it has been a busy and early start (the average date for the fourth named storm to occur is Sept. 1).
But as Florida residents mop up after two feet of drenching rains in some locations after tropical storm Debby, there is finally some good news from Washington on policy to lessen the destruction from flooding that these and other types of storms cause for people and property.
On Friday, both houses of Congress reached agreement and voted to pass a transportation bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama this week. Among the provisions included in the bill that will benefit America’s natural resources is a measure to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires property owners in flood-risk areas to buy federal insurance.
The reforms passed last week will discourage and guide development away from freshwater and coastal floodplains, while better informing the public about the dangers to people and properties of flood risk. More specifically it will:
1) phase out subsidies that have undermined the financial stability of the program;
2) require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ensure maps are updated and accurate so that people understand and can better prepare for their risks; and
3) streamline and strengthen mitigation programs to help decrease flood risks and better protect flood-exposed communities, homes and businesses.
Without this action, American taxpayers would have been asked to continue subsidizing public and private development in flood risk areas, doing nothing to fix the financial drain of this program – which is $18 billion in debt.
In this case a perfect storm of aligned interests was a good thing in terms of tackling a federal program long in need of reform. Advocates for taxpayers and debt reduction, environmentalists, community planners and the insurance and real estate industries all formed an unexpected coalition to urge Congressional action on flood insurance reform.
Cost savings paired with prudent planning and mitigation designed to avoid damages before they occur, brought these groups together. The Nature Conservancy joined with allies such as the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, and a diverse group of organizations who pushed for changes.
Studies have found that for every $1 spent on flood mitigation efforts, $5 is saved. That’s an important statistic considering that federal funding spent on flood damages in the first decade of this century has increased to an annual average of over $10 Billion, a 2.5 fold increase from the 1950s.
Many provisions in the bill recognize the flood protection value of our nation’s floodplains and will help to preserve these important natural systems that also deliver additional public benefits such as improving water quality, providing spawning areas for fish and habitat for other plants and animals, and providing recreational opportunities. And for the first time, when mapping flood risk areas, the bill requires the consideration of our changing climate and the accompanying processes such as sea level rise and changing precipitation patterns which are affecting flooding around the country.
Results from scientific studies indicate that a changing climate has exacerbated and will continue to intensify extreme weather events including flooding and coastal storms. A report commissioned by FEMA indicates there will be a 40 to 45 percent increase in U.S. areas susceptible to flooding over the next century. And, newly published research (Holland and Bruyere 2012) finds that the percentage of category 4-5 hurricanes has doubled from about 20% to about 40% in only 35 years.
As we face the storms and floods of the future, at least many positive changes will now be made to the nation’s flood insurance, leaving the program on higher, more solid ground.
Sarah Woodhouse Murdock is Acting Director of Climate Change Adaptation Policy for The Nature Conservancy.