This week’s flooding in Vermont, in which torrential rains wreak havoc far from rivers or coastlines, is evidence of a particularly grave climate threat: increasingly catastrophic floods can strike anywhere, almost without warning.
Experts warn that the United States is in no way ready to confront this threat.
The idea that anywhere it can rain, it can flood is not a new one. But rising temperatures make the problem worse: They allow the air to hold more moisture, which leads to more intense and sudden downpours, seemingly out of nowhere. The implications of this shift are enormous.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to adapt to these changing conditions,” said Rachel Cletts, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s just everywhere, all the time.”
The federal government is already struggling to prepare American communities for severe flooding, by funding better storm drains and pumps, building dams and seawalls, and raising roads and other basic infrastructure. As seas rise and storms intensify, the most flood-prone areas of the country—places like New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Charleston, or even parts of New York City—could easily eat up the entire government budget for climate resilience, without solving the problem. problem for any of them.
Federal flood maps, which governments use as a guide for determining where to build housing and infrastructure, are meant to be updated regularly. But they often fail to take full risks – as a result of a lack of resources, but also sometimes opposition from local officials Who do not want new frontiers of development.
And as the flooding in Vermont demonstrates, the government can only focus its resilience efforts in clear areas, near coasts or rivers.
But the country is lacking comprehensivethe current national precipitation database that can help inform homeowners, communities, and government of the increased risks from heavy rain.
In Vermont, the true number of homes at risk of flooding Three times as much as federal flood maps show, according to data from the First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit research group.
This so-called “hidden risk” is staggeringly high in other parts of the country, too. In Utah, the number of properties at risk when precipitation is calculated is eight times what appears on federal flood maps, according to First Street. In Pennsylvania, the risk is five and a half times higher. In Montana, it’s four times as much. Nationally, about 16 million properties are at risk, compared to 7.5 million in federally designated flood areas.
The result is severe flooding in what may seem like unexpected places, like Vermont. Last summer, rainstorms closed parts of Yellowstone National Park, forcing visitors to evacuate. In March, heavy rains triggered a federal disaster declaration across six counties in Nevada, the driest state in the country.
Matthew Sanders, who leads government resilience efforts for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the floods in Vermont highlight the need to spend more on modeling and planning for flood events. He said, “You have to look at how the water flows.” “We kind of need to reimagine what the most strategic interventions are.”
All that water often brings tragedy to the places least able to handle it.
Last year, heavy rains caused flash floods that poured through the hollows of eastern Kentucky. The force of the water tore down some homes, maimed trucks, and clogged remaining buildings with mud and debris. More than 35 people died.
Communities spread across the Appalachian Mountains are familiar with floods, as water seeps in from streams that flow through the area. But the ferocity of that flood left the families confused. “We went from being bedridden to homeless in less than two hours,” said Gary Moore, whose home outside Fleming Neon, Kentucky, was destroyed in the days after the floods.
Flooding has also been exacerbated by climate change due to the continuing effects of coal mining, as the industry that once supported communities has declined, leaving behind hills and mountains stripped of their hills and peaks. The loss of trees exacerbated the speed and volume of rainfall.
In Houston, deadly and destructive flooding has long been a familiar threat, so much so that the worst storms have become a shorthand for telling time: Tropical Storm Beta (2020), Tropical Storm Imelda (2019), Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the Tax Day flood (2016).
But up to half of the homes that have been breached by flood waters in recent years were outside the official flood risk areas. An analysis by the Harris County Flood Control District found that 68 percent of homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside of a 100-year floodplain, due to rising waters in streams and gulf flows through the area.
In Summerville, Ga. , a city of about 4,400 people nestled in the hills in the northwest corner of the state, homes and businesses were swept away by a flash flood last year after a deluge carried by remnants of Tropical Storm Claudette. Lots of Summerville It is located outside the 100-year-old floodplainThe city was swept by the destruction and the resulting cleaning work.
The floods have also become a source of frustration and pain in Horry County, SC, a coastal region that includes the resort of Myrtle Beach. April O’Leary, a resident who started a group called Horry County Rising, said in a 2021 hearing with FEMA officials that nearly half of the flooded homes in the county were outside a designated flood zone.
“There’s really no such thing as recovery when you’re drowning,” Ms. O’Leary told officials. “You will never fully recover financially, and families always live in fear of flooding.”
As the threat from floods and other weather shocks worsens, the federal government has increased funding for climate resilience projects. The 2021 infrastructure bill provided nearly $50 billion for such projects, the largest infusion in American history.
But this funding is still far short of need. This spring, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it received $5.6 billion in applications for two of its major disaster preparedness programs — approx. Twice as much as was available.
Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in flood risk, said the government needs to direct more money to the most economically vulnerable communities — those places least able to pay for resilience projects on their own.
But the scale of the intervention required is also an opportunity to fix old wrongs, according to Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a New York-based nonprofit that helps communities prepare for and recover from disaster. She said cities and towns can rethink how they are built, go back to nature, the land that was built on rivers, streams and wetlands, and create new parks or other landscaping to contain rainfall.
In this sense, she said, adaptation to climate change is an opportunity. Mrs. Chester asked, “At any other time, could you rethink the way you want to live?”