If you didn’t get flooded out during Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina or any of the extreme weather events in recent memory, it could still happen in the not-too-distant future.
Last Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released a report (pdf) on the impact of climate change on U.S. communities. Rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather will, says the report, lead to a 45 percent increase in the areas of the U.S. at risk for floods by 2100.
The FEMA report spells out what the impact of such a drastic increase in flood-prone areas could mean for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Currently there are 5.6 million properties that are categorized by FEMA as being in a special flood hazard area. Such places have a 1 percent risk of flooding in any given year. If you own a house in such an area and have a federally backed mortgaged, you are legally required to carry flood insurance.
By 2100, the number of properties that could be prone to flooding could double, says FEMA’s report. That is, as many as 11.2 million properties could require insurance and face the risk of routine flooding.
Were another huge storm and widespread flooding to occur, it would not be inaccurate to say that NFIP — which ended up $16 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina and will be $25 billion in debt due to Hurricane Sandy – could find itself inundated with more cases than it can handle. With the average loss on each insured property projected to increase by as much as 90 percent by 2100, the NFIP — already “one of the largest fiscal liabilities for the U.S. government” — could be stretched to the point that the premiums policy holders pay would not be sufficient. For NFIP to stay solvent, the average price of a policy would have to increase by 70 percent — meaning that an individual policy holder who pays $560 a year now would have to pay $952 by 2100.
Sound bad? Mother Jones points out that the situation could actually turn out to be worse. FEMA has based its estimate on the assumption (pdf) that sea levels will rise by about four feet in the next 86 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report last year that said that sea level could rise by six feet. Even more properties could be at risk of flooding than FEMA’s new report predicts.
The FEMA report makes it all too clear that the time for debating if climate change is real is long, long past. What we are living with is the very real results of climate change and what we need to do is make changes to accommodate ourselves to living in a warmer, wetter world.
Engineers have been at work creating floodgates and other technologies and infrastructure to help cities like New York in the event of major flooding. New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, recently unveiled a $19.5 billion plan to prepare the city for the effects of climate change; six-meter-high (20-foot) waterfront walls and dikes are to be constructed to prevent flooding.
But should municipalities allow building in places – coastal shorelines, barrier islands — that are likely to be hit hard by hurricanes and tropical storms? Should property owners assume more of the risk if they choose to build and/live in high-risk areas? Should more power and utility lines be installed underground?
In a climate changed world, what once passed for “record flooding” could become routine and have a huge impact on more and more communities as the population grows, especially in coastal areas and along rivers. The FEMA report does not itself make any recommendations for specific changes or policies but it is harsh reminder that climate change is costly in more than one sense of the word.
Photo: U.S. Geographical Society/flickr