Rising Waters

November 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

One of the things that we like to do at Governing is to take a problem that is relatively common to state or local governments and find a jurisdiction doing unusually well at addressing it. As Alan Greenblatt writes in this issue, Tulsa, Okla., has done more than just about any other city in the country to address its exposure to damage from flooding. Among other things, it has built a system of flood walls and detention basins, and it has removed roughly a thousand houses from flood-prone areas.

What Tulsa has accomplished is unusual in light of something that Beverly Cigler, a retired Pennsylvania State University professor of public administration, refers to in a recent article as “the intergovernmental paradox.” That is, local governments, which through land use and other policies could do the most to avoid flooding’s devastating consequences, are the least likely to perceive it as a high priority and have the fewest funds to pay for it. Whereas the federal government, which has the most resources and is concerned with the aggregate threat nationwide, has the least direct control.

It’s important to understand that when we talk about disasters in the United States, what we’re mostly talking about is flooding. As Cigler points out, over the past 50 years, 85 percent of presidential disaster declarations were for floods. And they are increasing in frequency and severity.

Green infrastructure can reduce stormwater runoff by 99 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that building to strong construction codes could reduce Florida homeowners’ hurricane losses by 61 percent. Therefore, it is up to state and local governments to adopt these codes, even in the face of resistance from the construction industry and developers. It’s been shown that higher design standards have an investment payback of more than 4 to 1.

As politically difficult as these decisions are, they are critically important. The current system, in which the federal government absorbs the bulk of flooding’s costs by subsidizing insurance and reimbursing states and localities, is fiscally unsustainable. The National Flood Insurance Program was already more than $24 billion in the hole before this summer’s hurricanes.

So it seems inevitable that the feds are going to be passing more of the costs of flooding to state and local governments. As Tulsa is demonstrating, local leadership and investment can do a lot to minimize those costs. Other local governments ought to take note.