Witold F. Krajewski and Larry J. Weber, guest columnist
With a year of unprecedented flooding in Iowa nearly behind us and our nation witnessing the horrific devastation of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and southern states, it’s clearer now, more than ever, that we need common-sense reforms that help our communities address the increasing threat of flooding.
This year alone floods damaged the state of Iowa to the tune of $2 billion. It impacted homes, farms, businesses, and schools in every single county. And this isn’t just an Iowa problem — flooding is now the country’s most common and costliest natural disaster. It threatens lives, erodes financial well-being and it degrades the quality of life for folks across our state.
As the co-founders of the Iowa Flood Center, we are proud of the way our state responded to these flooding events, but we also know that in long term we have to develop solutions that recognize the increasing severity of storms and flood events.
Investing in flood protection is critical. The Institute of Building Sciences have found that for every $1 invested in mitigation it saves $6 in damage recovery. That’s why, for example, after the 2008 Cedar Rapids’ flood that saw $500 million in damages to homes, businesses and government building, we saw forward-thinking investments in flood walls, detention and retention ponds, and right-sized culverts. This type of infrastructure is needed across the state — but it will only happen with support from our state and federal governments, and ideally, it needs to happen before a major flood event and not after.
Congress is making some attempt to remedy the situation — but it’s neither fast enough nor adequate enough to address the problem. For one thing, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides insurance for 22,000 communities, has seen 13 short term extensions without any major reforms to actually help solve the underlying issues of solvency and sustainability within the program. The problem is difficult as bringing the program to solvency may necessitate steep increase in insurance rates. On the other hand, the rates need to reflect the actual risk that many people are experiencing.
Assessing this risk and associated cost-benefit of flood protection levees, is complicated. For example, in the Missouri River floodplains, small communities and large expanses of flood plain farmland are currently unprotected as a result of the devastating 2019 floods. Who should be protected? To what level should the protection be provided? And who should pay for this protection? These are all difficult and, in some cases, unresolved questions.
There are two bipartisan proposals in the U.S. Senate that, if enacted, would support community flood resiliency.
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The creation of a State Flood Mitigation Revolving Loan Fund (S. 2192), modeled after the successful Clean Water and Drinking Water revolving loan funds, would provide low-interest loans to local communities to complete flood mitigation projects. This self-replenishing and sustainable fund would be available to communities, homeowners, businesses, and nonprofits for preparations such as elevating structures, buying out properties in high-risk areas and other flood-mitigation activities. It would also leverage local dollars to make sure all government units have skin in the game.
A second important proposal is the Repeatedly Flooded Communities Preparation Act (S. 2088). It would offer critical protection of taxpayer and policyholder dollars through targeted attention and assistance to repeatedly flooded areas. Repeatedly flooded properties have historically represented only 1 percent of the National Flood Insurance Program policyholders, though they account for roughly 20 to 30 percent of the claims. This law would require communities with more than 50 repeatedly flooded properties to put plans in place to improve flood plain management and mitigation to reduce flooding risk of these homes.
We hope that Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst consider supporting these common-sense reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program during its reauthorization. Improvements like these reduce flood risk and better prepare our residents and communities for the next time floodwaters begin to rise.
Congress has the ability to make long-term improvements to our nation’s preparedness and response to flooding. The time is now, especially before the memories of 2019’s flooding recede.
Witold F. Krajewski and Larry J. Weber are co-founders of the Iowa Flood Center and civil and environmental engineers at the University of Iowa.