The Flood Challenge for Resiliency
Floods are becoming more common across the vast geography of the United States. The flooding in 2016 and 2017 set a new standard in frequency and severity. According to Munich Re’s NatCatSERVICE database, in 2016 the U.S. experienced more floods than any previous year on record.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey was recorded as the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina’s heavy damages due to levee failures. Evaluations around Hurricane Harvey estimate that 80% of homes in Houston were not insured for flood. This means the gap between the insured and economic losses, also known as the “protection gap,” was huge.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 98% of U.S. counties have been impacted by a flooding at some point in their history. Coastal flooding, river flooding, and surge flooding are impacting onshore and offshore communities everywhere. A February 2018 study in IOPscience, “Estimates of present and future flood risk in the conterminous United States,” declares the number of housing units within the 1-in-100 year floodplain could be as high as 15.4 million.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General noted another disturbing fact: as of December 2016, only 42% of FEMA’s flood maps, which are used to assess risk and set insurance premiums, are up to date and valid. FEMA’s flood maps aren’t just outdated, they are also created with imprecise indicators. Even the most recently generated maps don’t account for rapid rain accumulation, how buildings are constructed, climate change, or expected population growth. “These maps will always be obsolete the day they come out,” said Larry Larson, senior policy advisor and director emeritus for the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) relies on these flood maps, but outdated information and obsolete methods could leave the program and homeowners in a very vulnerable position. The National Centers for Environmental Information reported that in 2017 the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events: three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought, and wildfire.
Flood maps can be a useful tool to help make informed decisions, however, they shouldn’t be a determining factor for insurance coverage. FEMA admits that anywhere it can rain, it can flood, even if it doesn’t reside within a designated flood zone. A spokesperson for FEMA said, “FEMA encourages everyone to consider buying flood insurance and making mitigation-related changes to reduce their risks and protect their properties.” More insured homes make for a more resilient community and that could help everyone involved.
The key to insurability? Resiliency.
Huge storms and huge claims may be viewed as natural disasters, but they can also be seen as an opportunity for new resilience initiatives. Jeffrey Heberg, Chief Resilience Officer for New Orleans, notes the key to resilience is strong community infrastructure. A crucial requirement for cities and states moving forward will be to focus on building more resilient communities to help protect them from natural catastrophes. This is where public private partnerships (P3) can come in and play a crucial role.
P3 partnerships rely on three critical factors: the government’s ability to ensure adequate loss prevention, the building of physically resilient structures, and the implementation of forward-looking municipal planning (e.g., futuristic view of flood maps, flood plain management, etc.). As discussed earlier, the current lack of modern flood maps provides a critical moment where resiliency could be strengthened.
Changes to geographic regions, once sparsely populated and now filled with burgeoning cities, mean new communities are at a growing risk from today’s extreme weather events. To truly foster a culture of preparedness we must go beyond FEMA programs by engaging stakeholders at the federal, state, local, territorial, and private level. Insurance will play a role in helping communities recover, but the building of resilient communities will ultimately help mitigate the damages, keep community credit ratings manageable, and aid in the recovery process. The time for higher resiliency—is now.