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Harvey Hindsight: Local Mitigation, Sensible Zoning Would Make a Difference

Relying on the federal government to mitigate flooding is a recipe for disaster.

In the aftermath of the massive flooding in the Houston, Texas, region brought on by Hurricane Harvey and its accompanying 50-plus inches of rainfall, there is talk and some action on what do for the next big storms.

The House recently approved a disaster relief bill that would forgive $16 billion of debt for the troubled National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is more than $25 billion in debt, but lawmakers also are eyeballing multiple-loss properties — those that flood repeatedly and cause multiple insurance claims to be filed.

Of NFIP’s 5 million total policies, the multiple insurance claims account for just 2 percent, but those add up to about 30 percent of flood claims. But addressing this problem comes with controversy.

Taking away insurance for those properties would “make it the way it used to be” according to a source — meaning compassion and assistance would be lacking — and what you would end up with is coverage that is unaffordable, preventing people from getting covered and resulting in fewer people paying their own way. Relief, after a disaster, would then come in the form of direct assistance through appropriations.

Because of the concerns in both the House and Senate, that bill may be doomed.

There are also bipartisan efforts to work toward solving the problem through mitigation. Agencies like FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers report great success with mitigation programs. FEMA’s hazard mitigation programs generate a yield of $4 saved for every federal dollar spent, and the Army Corps of Engineers reports 6.48 to 1 return on investment in its flood control program nationally.

 “If you look at those returns and consider the fact that the biggest price tag under [the Disaster Relief Fund] is not homes or grandfathered properties, it’s the replacement of infrastructure — schools, roads, bridges, utilities, libraries — and hazard mitigation does not keep water off the built environment,” said Dan Delich, a water resources consultant in Texas.

There is a place for elevating homes, but elevating 10 homes costs $1 million. Conversely, if you take that million and give it to a well-run levy district, the district might be able to protect a thousand properties, according to Delich.
He said FEMA could and should undertake this type of project, but at some point there was “sort of a policy decision” that FEMA would do the non-structural work and the Corps of Engineers would take care of the big systems.

“Levies and dams do fail, but there has been tremendous success in the Lower Mississippi Valley and in Dallas,” Delich said. “Two years ago we had 35 trillion gallons of rainwater come down on Texas, and the Corps and local projects yielded $13.3 billion in losses avoided.”

Denying Insurance
David Conrad, a consultant who served with the Association of State Floodplain Managers as principal investigator on a national study of federal programs, said the answer to the problem goes way beyond whether to insure, but needs community focus on using available resources for high-risk areas and moving toward rational floodplain management.

“Simply denying the availability of insurance still leaves the building — often occupied — and puts emergency responders in harm’s way,” Conrad said, “and if the building truly shouldn’t be there then we should use resources to remove or at least elevate it.”

He said in the fervor to develop the area decades ago, nobody saw the big picture. The Army Corps purchased about 24,000 acres within the floodplain and built the Barker and Addicks reservoirs. About 14,00 acres then remained in the floodplain and was left in private hands. Up cropped beautiful subdivisions, some of the nicest, most desirable neighborhoods in the region, right there in the flood zone.

Conrad said the that even with that amount of rainfall, the flooding should have been foreseen. After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which dropped as much as 40 inches of rain, and storms since, it was clear that the odds are high that this much rainfall can hit any part of the region.

“And to label storms ‘the 500-year flood’ or ‘1,000-year flood,’ and not develop a strategy that is focused on assuring the conveyance for large amounts of runoff, some storage to assist the timing of the releases, and to recognize that continued encroachment on the floodplain is just inviting increasing damage,” Conrad said.

“Even the Army Corps was late to recognize that these buildings were becoming constraints on their flood management,” Conrad said. “The challenge is going to be for everyone to look at the realities. Federal funding is increasingly hard to get. Buyouts are one too; elevation is another.”

Local Mitigation
There are things that can and should be done, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and they aren’t that complicated.

Simply zoning for compatible use is one of those things that wasn’t done in Houston, known for its disdain for zoning. “Think about the situation with Barker and Addicks reservoirs, where you had more than 3,000 homes evacuated simply for the normal operations of those reservoirs,” Berginnis said. “How in the heck was that allowed to happen? Zoning could have easily fixed that. You zone those areas so you don’t put houses there.”

He cautioned too about such larger flood-control measures, saying they are engineered to a certain flood condition, and with sea-level rise and a warming planet, that is risky. “To invest billions in structural measures where the future is uncertain but on a bad trajectory doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Berginnis echoed Conrad’s sentiment about the 100-year flood standard, calling it inadequate as a protection of elevation or even representative of where flooding happens. He noted that much of the flooding happened outside of the floodplain.

Also, counting on the federal government for flood-control needs is inadequate, and many jurisdictions successfully mitigate flooding with local programs and local dollars.

Charlotte, N.C., two years ago launched a retrofit program that allows residents to elevate or otherwise flood-proof their homes, and it’s funded locally. Minnesota has spent $500 million in state funds on a damage reduction program. “You can’t just leave it to the feds,” Berginnis said. “It just won’t get the job done.”