3 Reports, 1 Message: Time to Get Tough on Flood Risk

"One-hundred year" flood zones are areas estimated to have a 1% chance of flooding each year. Here, those zones are compared to FEMA estimates of actual Sandy flooding. Image and caption courtesy of project WNYC.

“One-hundred year” flood zones are areas estimated to have a 1% chance of flooding each year. Here, those zones are compared to FEMA estimates of actual Sandy flooding. Image and caption courtesy of project WNYC.

Tropical Cyclone Sandy was a game-changer for the way Americans view flood risk. After barreling through the Caribbean, the major storm system struck the East Coast on October 29, 2012, inundating subway tunnels, roads, parks, houses, apartments, businesses, hospitals, beaches, and more. In response, local and national city planners, lawmakers, and insurers took note. This summer, (at least) three different reports have been released singing this same urgent tune. Each report is profiled below.

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Report Title: A Stronger, More Resilient New York

Author(s): Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York

Release Date: June 2013

Summary: In its 438 pages, the report enumerates Sandy’s intensity, an exhaustive list of damage statistics, and neighborhood-level rebuilding and resiliency plans. Below are some of the report’s jaw-dropping facts and ambitious city goals.

– Sandy struck New York with a storm surge of up to 14 feet (in other words, the height of over 5 raptors stacked on top of each other), shattering the previous record of 10 feet. Storm surge is the rising of sea level due to storm-related atmospheric changes and strong winds. The increase in sea level is temporary, and rises above normal tide levels. But if normal tides are particularly high, as was the case during Sandy’s visit, surge levels will be further increased.

– In New York, Sandy was responsible for 43 deaths; the evacuation of 65,000 patients from hospitals and nursing homes; almost 2 million people without power for hours, days, even weeks, in some cases; $19 billion in damage; nearly 400 parks were severely damaged.

– In 1983, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) released 100-year floodplain maps for New York (and most of the country). Note: A 100-year flood event is not one that occurs every 100 years. It is an event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year–and the 100-year floodplain maps thus show this area. This way of evaluating risk is important because it impacts the rules that govern building standards and flood insurance eligibility. The flooding from Hurricane Sandy far exceeded the region that was supposedly vulnerable from the 1983-defined 100 year floodplain. In Sandy’s wake, FEMA is working to update its maps to show more accurate flood risk.

– Flood insurance is not generally covered in most private insurance plans, like homeowner’s insurance. Instead, people or businesses likely have to purchase a plan separately through the government-run National Flood Insurance Plan (NFIP). The NFIP saw losses between $12-15 billion from Sandy. But more shocking than the damage, was the high number of people who were eligible for flood insurance but did not have coverage because either they did not know flooding was not included in their plan or did not want to buy it. It is estimated that less than 20% of residential buildings in areas impacted by Sandy had NFIP coverage, and the numbers are even lower for commercial buildings.

– Near-term NYC resiliency milestones hoped to be achieved by the end of this year: Launch of housing and building recovery programs, launch of Neighborhood Game Changer and Resiliency Technology Competitions, launch of flood insurance-related studies with FEMA for the NFI, etc.

“Of course, if this plan is implemented, New York City will not be ‘climate-change proof’—an impossible goal—but it will be far safer and more resilient than it is today…”

– Mayor Bloomberg, p. 5

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Report Name: Overwhelming Risk: Rethinking Flood Insurance in a World of Rising Seas

Author(s): Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

Release Date: August 2013

Summary: This report is only 30 pages, a short read compared to the Bloomberg report, and focuses less on Sandy and its impacts and more on a national evaluation of flood risk and what this means for the country’s flood insurance program. As sea levels rise due to climate change, more and more areas will either be under water or at increased risk of flooding during extreme weather events like Sandy. This means the national flood insurance program will have greater coverage–and greater financial burden.

– According to projects, global average sea level is likely to increase between 6-16 inches by 2050, and potentially up to 6.6 feet by 2100, primarily due to climate change.

– Private insurers have stopped providing flood insurance in most places, especially along the coast, because of the high risk. As a result, the National Flood Insurance Program shoulders the majority of the risk. And right now, according to the report, the amount people pay for flood insurance coverage along the coast is too low to actually dissuade people from living in these high-risk areas. But this is going to change as FEMA updates its flood risk maps, causing the NFIP to then update its rates…

– In 2012, the insured value of home and business buildings in the coastal counties of the 18 Atlantic and Gulf coast states was $10.6 trillion; New York and Florida topped the list with insured properties amounting to $2.9 trillion each. In other words, there is a lot of insured real estate on the coast in NY and FL and when a big storm strikes, like Sandy, the cost of damages will be spectacular.

“…coastal residents and business owners are at increased risk and taxpayers nationwide are looking at shelling out more money to help with post-storm rebuilding efforts.”

– Rachel Cleetus, USC

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Report Title: Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy

Author(s): Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force

Release Date: August 2013

Summary: Mid-sized at 200 pages, this document is similar to the Bloomberg report in that it showcases the damage related to Sandy in various statistics. The study also provides descriptions of the different government (federal, state, and local) emergency management efforts to prepare and respond to Sandy. But the heart of the strategy lies in its suggestions for rebuilding in the New York, New Jersey, and the entire impacted East Coast area.

– In the days prior to Sandy’s landfall, more than 1,500 FEMA personnel were on the ground along the East Coast.

– In January 2013, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act 2013 was passed and provided approximately $50 billion in assistance to supporting Sandy rebuilding efforts.

– The strategy (similar to Bloomberg’s report) wants to increase awareness about flood insurance, and ultimately, increase the number of people who will buy this special coverage. Prior to Sandy, only 38,785 homes and business had flood insurance in NYC out of the possible 300,000 houses and 23,400 businesses.

– The strategy has four major goals: (1) aligning government funding with “local rebuilding visions”; (2) Making it increasing easier and more efficient for families and communities to access disaster relief and resiliency funding; (3) Coordinating rebuilding efforts across different levels of government; (4) Ensuring that rebuilding is done smartly and actually results in communities that are better able to handle climate climate and extreme weather better than before.

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In these three reports, there are overlapping terms (flood, flood risk, flood insurance, NFIP, FEMA, damage) and themes (increasing building resiliency; the need to update flood risk maps; acknowledging climate change will increase flood risk; the need to rethink the flood insurance program). Each report offers a little more clarity to a very confusing and scary topic: the very real threat that floods, especially those triggered by major storms, pose to east coast communities. It is clear from reading each report that more, creative solutions are needed and the implementation of these solutions will be difficult and expensive. But these reports are the a step in the right direction.

Zahra Hirji is an earth science and risk blogger. She interns for InsideClimate News. Follow her on Twitter @Zhirji28

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