Coastal flooding is now one of the most prevalent hazards impacting communities and economies. Last year’s hurricane season shows us that we still have a long way to go to prepare for and recover from floods and other natural disasters.
It will take new approaches to planning and decisive action to be more resilient to the devastating effects of extreme weather events. However, addressing the risks and vulnerabilities to flood impacts at the local and state level is only half of the equation; coastal residents and business must also act, navigate new regulations and understand their insurance options.
Residents of the Gulf of Mexico are very familiar with the loss from hurricanes, both monetarily and personally. Since 2004, they’ve experienced impacts from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Charley, Ike, Ivan, Irma and Harvey. These events are referred to as “billion-dollar disasters,” and they can also include tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, droughts and blizzards. The frequency of these weather events is increasing, and the average number of billion-dollar disasters per year has increased from three events per year in 1980-1984 to 12 events per year in the past five years. Unfortunately, a new U.S. annual record was set in 2017 with 16 weather and climate disasters with a total cost of approximately $306 billion.
Because of these increased losses, more communities and homeowners are slowly investing both time and resources to become resilient before the next natural disaster. Solutions to prepare and plan include enhancing local capacity and increased training for municipal officials, strengthening and elevating homes, or funding infrastructure improvements. The challenge is finding the best information and expertise, leveraging partnerships effectively and obtaining the necessary funding.
Research shows mitigation pays off
Thanks to recent post-disaster research and analysis, more experts and citizens now know about the solutions that exist and can be assured that local efforts are not wasted. For instance, a recent study by the National Institute of Building Standards shows that every $1 we spend on hazard mitigation saves $6 in post-disaster recovery costs. This amount even accounts for societal impacts and benefits outside of recovery and rebuilding costs. Mitigation can save lives and dollars while providing peace of mind, but implementing this change requires prudent planning, education and collaboration.
Exacerbating the process to foster resilience to flooding, communities and their residents must also navigate FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Most notably, community officials and local businesses need to understand their flood risk and insurance costs according to local floodplain management regulations and flood maps.
New maps put more Alabama buildings in high-risk zones
Community flood maps are updated on a schedule set by FEMA, which typically rotates its focus regionally and now employs modernized mapping and modeling technologies. Just this past year, preliminary flood maps were released for Alabama’s Baldwin and Mobile counties. The update is creating a challenge for local officials, as communities are seeing drastic changes to the number of buildings in the floodplain. A recent analysis showed that while just 7,000 buildings will be taken out of the high-risk flood zones, nearly 10,000 buildings are now in expanded flood zones.
Additionally, the maps designate an increase of 163 square miles in the floodplain. This means that local officials and practitioners need to educate these residents and businesses on their newly designated risk, solutions for mitigation, and how to buy proper flood insurance. A daunting task.
Community Rating System helps lower cost
To assist municipalities with improving local floodplain management and community outreach, FEMA developed and employs a program called the Community Rating System (CRS). Participation in the program incentivizes communities with various activities that will lower residents’ flood insurance premiums.
For instance, local officials can develop an informational outreach campaign, enforce higher regulatory standards (for example, elevating homes above FEMA’s set floodplain), acquire land and open space to absorb flood waters, or build green infrastructure to mitigate surge events.
It’s a fairly simple process, the more points acquired through approved activities the bigger reduction in flood insurance premiums. This means more money in people’s pockets and the local economy. While this program has multiple benefits, municipalities and local decision-makers must expend resources and receive support from community leadership to get the job done.
Sea Grant can help
For the many problems flooding poses in coastal communities, more solutions to mitigate its devastating effects are becoming available to residents and communities alike. Sea Grant extension agents and specialists are here to help.
We employ programs and outreach efforts to assist communities with navigating information and instilling good practices that foster resilience. We facilitate the Community Resilience Index to help identify a community’s strengths and weaknesses, organize workshops and practitioner groups to share best practices, and conduct research to inform decisions.
Let us know how we can help your community become more resilient.
Visit Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant’s Resilience Page for more information on programs, research and regional collaborations. For more information on the CRS Program, visit this resources page. Please contact me for questions and/or assistance.