Sunday, July 21, 2024

Sanders: Flood readiness improves in some states, but much of U.S. remains vulnerable

by BIZ Magazine

A failure to plan, the saying goes, is planning to fail. And over the past 30 years, this maxim has played out in the nation’s approach to climate-related disasters, particularly flooding. In 2021 alone, flooding has taken lives and destroyed homes and businesses from Tennessee and New Jersey to Washington state and Arkansas. The year was not an outlier: In each of the past five years, floods caused an average of $9 billion in damage and economic losses across the country.

But with good planning – and action – in advance of disasters, that number could be much lower. Congress and the White House have made strides recently to begin this process, but much more must be done to ensure that American communities are ready not only for the floods that are coming but also for those that we’re already experiencing.

First, the good news: On Nov. 5, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, authorizing significant funding to help states and localities prepare for and respond to climate impacts.

The new programs in the law include an $8.7 billion grant initiative to support state and local transportation plans and projects that incorporate climate resilience; $1 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program; and $3.5 billion for the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance program for use in efforts such as buying out repeatedly flooded properties.

The law also funds more than $500 million for research, including 10 new regional Centers of Excellence for Resilience and Adaptation aimed at making the country’s transportation infrastructure, and the communities that rely on it, more climate-ready. The regional centers, working in concert with a national center, will engage transportation experts and stakeholders to develop, refine, and pilot innovations and best practices for transportation resilience.

This good news comes with a hitch: To maximize the opportunity created by this federal action, states – which will be the primary recipients of much of this money – also need to do their part to develop resilience and adaptation plans to ensure that funds coming down the pipeline are spent wisely and efficiently.

Some are already making progress. New Jersey, for example, in October finalized its first statewide Climate Change Resilience Strategy, which incorporates sea-level rise through 2100 and calls for changes to the state’s infrastructure and community development patterns to respond to the projected impacts. A companion effort, New Jersey Protecting Against Climate Threats, uses the same projections to signal where and how the state will make future infrastructure investments. This work builds on New Jersey’s ongoing efforts to help residents move out of especially flood-prone areas, notably through its Blue Acres Program—a long-standing buyout initiative that the state plans to revamp and expand in response to Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a measure signed into law in 2020 by Gov. Henry McMaster (R) required the hiring of a chief resilience officer to lead numerous projects, including making the state more flood-ready. With the new resilience officer in place, South Carolina is now on pace to release its first resilience plan in 2022.

And in Tennessee, which experienced devastating flooding in August 2021, municipalities are taking the initiative. Nashville recently completed its 400th buyout of homes in especially flood-prone areas, and Chattanooga in April released a regional resilience plan accounting for excessive flooding, heat, wildfires, and tornadoes. On average, flooding costs the state $243 million each year, according to a 2020 report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. That’s one reason a new coalition, Flood Ready Tennessee, is urging Governor Bill Lee (R) and other policymakers to commit to state-level resilience planning, technical assistance for local governments, and investment in flood mitigation projects.

Although all of this progress is encouraging, it’s critical that many more states follow suit. Residents across the country have learned the hard way that flooding isn’t limited to the coasts, or to hurricane season, or to the so-called 100-year floods that now occur every few years in some places.

Buoyed by the new federal infrastructure law, states and municipalities have an excellent opportunity to plan for the more frequent and extreme rains and other climate emergencies that scientists tell us are coming.

Specifically, state and local governments should develop plans based on projected climate impacts and use those plans to direct the unprecedented influx of federal funding for resilience projects. States should look first to nature-based solutions—for example, by expanding green space in flood plains to help absorb water, using permeable components instead of hard materials such as asphalt to better manage storm runoff, and restoring wetlands and other natural barriers that have been shown to reduce flood risk for communities.

By using nature to curtail flood risk, governments can improve communities’ quality of life, often saving taxpayers money while helping our planet. Additionally, plans should address historical inequities, such as the disproportionate climate impacts on low-income neighborhoods. With a comprehensive approach, governments can help to increase these frontline communities’ capacity to prepare for disasters, and encourage greater collaboration among all levels of government and key resilience partners such as nongovernmental organizations, academia, and the private sector.

By now, most policymakers recognize that climate change is real, that it’s getting worse, and that their communities must adapt to an ever-worsening flood threat. The pieces are in place for them to make those adaptations; it’s now incumbent upon federal, state, and local leaders to work together to plan for the future, before the waters rise yet again.

Mathew Sanders manages state planning for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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