Severe storms “fall on the rich and poor alike,” but low-income neighborhoods suffer more damage from urban flooding, according to a new study.
Poorer areas also have less political clout to remedy the many gaps in the way cities, states and the federal government deal with rising seas and more record rainfall caused by climate change.
The report, released Friday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, notes that the gaps include an underestimation of the historic damage caused by urban floods and the inability of governments to predict where damage will occur. It stresses a need for “stronger coordination” among the multiplicity of local, state and federal agencies that manage both small and large floods.
The panel of scientists and other experts that did the study—which was requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—held workshops and conducted interviews in four cities. In each area, neighborhoods containing the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the disabled were “disproportionally affected” by floods, the report says.
“Low levels of citizen engagement” contributed to the problem, it says. The report notes that in Baltimore, urban flooding damaged not only homes, but also schools and medical centers used by low-income families. Meanwhile, in nearby neighborhoods, “residents of valuable historic properties” received subsidized federal flood insurance to restore their homes.
The panel visited a frequently flooded neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side where middle-income African-American residents complained they were given “a lower priority on major [flood] mitigation projects” than wealthier neighborhoods on the city’s North Side.
Among the basic problems confronted in all four cities: Historical records of flooding contained gaps that understated previous flooding damage. FEMA records don’t include the costs of more frequent small floods and uninsured damage, including resulting health problems and unemployment in areas where businesses are shut down.
Climate change-related factors, such as record rainfall, also make it more difficult to predict both the extent and locations of future flood damage. The report notes that before Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County, Texas—which includes Houston—the worst storm on record flooded about 73,000 homes. Harvey damaged 208,353 homes; 59 percent were outside the areas where FEMA estimated that record flooding would occur once in 500 years.
The report calls for “a new generation of flood maps and visualizations” that better integrate storm damage predictions with local topographical quirks and shortcomings in the capacities of storm sewer systems that can compound urban flooding.
It praises the Indian Bend Wash, a flood-control project in Maricopa County, Ariz., that emerged after citizens objected to a huge concrete channel to carry away floodwaters. In the early 1970s, after Phoenix suffered its worst storm in history, voters approved the creation of Eldorado Park, an 11-mile, federally funded open space where development was prevented. The park provided areas for hiking, biking and fishing. It also had the capacity to carry away up to 30,000 cubic feet of floodwater per second.
Over 280 million Americans live in urban areas. David Maidment, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who chaired the committee behind the report, stressed that each city’s problem can be different and that flooding can occur “everywhere in metropolitan areas, not just in floodplains flanking rivers and coasts.”
“In order to better understand and manage urban flooding,” Maidment said in a statement, “each city must take into account its built and natural environment, the impacts on people, information available to understand or communicate flood events, and the mix of local, state and federal policies in force.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.