Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, are devastating reminders that flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States, costing $260 billion from 1980 to 2013.
As mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1975 to 2016, I witnessed all manner of flooding and faced a direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Hugo. During that time, we took numerous steps to anticipate the threat — and mitigate the damage — of floods, and for good reason: Parts of Charleston are just several feet above sea level, and our city is bordered by two rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.
While Charleston hasn’t figured out how to eliminate flooding, we’re working hard to reduce the threat and costs. The city has made major improvements to storm water systems, incorporated smart urban design, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address sea-level rise. Despite these efforts we — like many other coastal and inland communities — remain challenged to balance flood preparedness investments with limited resources. The federal government has a role to play in supporting states and communities in practices that reduces disaster costs.
One of the biggest contributors to those costs is homes and communities that are repeatedly damaged by floods. Properties that flood multiple times make up just 1 percent of flood insurance policyholders but about 20 to 30 percent of claims — one reason why the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures almost 5 million at-risk properties, is $25 billion in debt. And in South Carolina there are more than 1,000 such properties.
Fortunately, Congress is moving to address this challenge. The Repeatedly Flooded Communities Preparation Act (S. 1445), introduced earlier this year by Sens. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, would require local planners to pinpoint flooding hotspots and develop plans to address those properties most at risk of flooding. This bill, if passed, will make our communities safer.
A critical link exists between flood-prone areas and the need for a nationwide investment in public infrastructure, which has suffered from years of underfunding and neglect. It is imperative that any infrastructure proposal introduced by the president or Congress include funding designed to minimize flood damage and end the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars to rebuild areas that flood again and again. Infrastructure in flood-risk areas should be built to withstand future flooding, and communities need to decide when it simply doesn’t make sense to build or rebuild in areas that flood repeatedly.
These more traditional approaches to using infrastructure to combat flooding are a good start, but planners at all levels of government should also consider natural storm barriers — from wetlands and mangroves to sand dunes and salt marshes — which, studies have shown, can be as effective as hand-built structures in mitigating floods. The storm-protection benefits provided by wetlands in the United States are valued at $23.2 billion each year. Despite that, our country lost more than 360,000 acres of wetlands in coastal watersheds from 2004 to 2009. Restoring coastal ecosystems can yield long-lasting economic and human benefits, and help create more livable, prepared communities.
Because preparing for and responding to flooding is a shared responsibility among individuals, states and the federal government, I’ve asked leaders across the United States to join me in signing a Statement of Principles dedicating ourselves to bipartisan action. Leaders from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Irvine, California, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have signed on to support the construction of more resilient infrastructure in their communities and nationally. Flooding affects tens of millions of Americans every year, and elected officials and decision makers at all levels of government understand that water doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. They also know that the standards of the past are insufficient for the present and future.
While it’s too early to know the breadth of damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and the extent of Irma’s impact in Florida, we do know that if we don’t work together as a country to begin making smarter, more durable investments in infrastructure, our patchy flood preparedness history is doomed to repeat itself. While none of us can change the weather, we can encourage elected officials at every level of government to work collaboratively to anticipate these events and to make investments that will help protect communities today and save taxpayer dollars tomorrow.
Joseph P. Riley was mayor of Charleston, S.C., from December 1975 to January 2016 and now is a distinguished fellow with The Pew Charitable Trusts.