Before the Flood: the Value of Mitigation

There's much that governments can do to lessen the impact of the natural disasters that are becoming increasingly common.
March 22, 2017
By Susan K. Urahn  |  Contributor
Executive vice president and chief program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts

Billion-dollar natural disasters are becoming the norm in the United States. Since 1980, catastrophes of this magnitude have affected all 50 states, hitting five to 10 times each year. Floods are the most frequent and expensive disasters; from 1980 to 2013, they caused more than $260 billion in damage. In 2016 alone, 36 of the federal government's 46 disaster declarations involved floods or hurricanes; four of them cost more than $1 billion each.

That's the price of cleaning up a flood after it happens. But much can be done to mitigate damage and reduce costs before the rain begins. Forward-thinking policymakers and local officials are doing just that.

Take Tulsa, Okla. Oil transformed the frontier town into a booming city in the early 20th century, but builders gave little thought to how water would drain. Decades later, on Memorial Day in 1984, 15 inches of rain deluged the city overnight, and the water had no place to go. Flooding destroyed more than 7,000 vehicles and 5,500 buildings, including more than 20 schools, and cost nearly $406 million in damages. Fourteen people died and 288 were injured.

The flood of 1984 and others motivated Tulsa to take a comprehensive approach to flood management, shifting from a reactive posture to a proactive one. The city established a stormwater management utility to centralize operations related to floods, used nature-based solutions for flood control along Mingo Creek, and imposed a stormwater utility fee for hard surfaces, which accelerate water runoff into ditches and streams. This additional revenue, along with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), financed new open spaces and water-detention areas, along with the removal of structures located in floodplains. Since then, properties in Tulsa have experienced significantly less flood-related damage. The result is a model for other comprehensive flood-control programs.

These changes in the way governments manage flood preparation and mitigation save millions of dollars annually. Research by an arm of the National Institute for Building Sciences in 2005 found that, on average, every dollar invested in mitigation results in $4 saved in recovery costs.

There are a number of approaches to mitigation. To pre-empt flood damage, officials responsible for protecting lives and property are retrofitting flood-resistant buildings, relocating people from risky areas and preserving open space. In 2013, floods devastated many Colorado communities, including Boulder, where water damaged 262 homes and destroyed 300. But the damage could have been worse: Decades earlier, Boulder had tied flood management planning to the city's community development programs, creating a key source of funding for drainage improvements and voluntary buyouts of risky properties.

Other local governments have implemented creative financing to deal with deluges. Last September, Washington, D.C's water and sewer authority issued the nation's first municipal environmental impact bond, which uses money from a range of investors to finance green infrastructure to help reduce flood risk. And North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg County-once besieged by floods-adopted land use rules to ensure that new development would not worsen flood risk for existing homes and businesses. The county also is encouraging homeowners living in flood-prone areas to move so that land can be restored to its natural floodplain state. To do so, the county is using stormwater fees, the amount cities often charge homeowners and businesses to manage water, to fund the relocation of houses, apartment buildings and businesses. The program also includes "orphan" buyouts for homes or buildings next to properties that qualify for federal buyouts. As a result, more than 600 families no longer live in risky locations. Similar buyouts in Missouri saved nearly $100 million from losses avoided in 2008, a 212 percent return on investment.

The federal government can also play an important role in supporting investment by states and localities in practices that reduce disaster costs. However, current federal investment is geared more toward responding to and rebuilding from disasters than toward minimizing their impact. From 2005 to 2014, the federal government spent $277.6 billion on disaster assistance, while FEMA designated less than $600 million toward its primary pre-disaster mitigation program. Clearly, the federal government should increase investments before disaster strikes.

But the federal government cannot bear the financial burden of flood mitigation and repair alone. Localities and states must take more responsibility for navigating the era of increased flooding and rising tides. An important step toward that goal will occur when state and local officials gather in Kansas City on April 30 for the annual meeting of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. The conference will be an opportunity to share innovative financing and flood-management best practices that will help communities prepare for the more costly weather events that are certain to come.