Regardless of whether a lake, river, or ocean is actually in view, everyone is at some risk of flooding. Flash floods, tropical storms, increased urbanization, and the failing of infrastructure such as dams and levees all play a part—and cause millions (sometimes billions) of dollars in damage across the country each year.

Floods: SandbagsEven in 2011, a year before Hurricane Sandy broke records as one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history, the National Flood Insurance Program of the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA) paid more than $2 billion in flood insurance claims, primarily to those in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

In 2013, before spring had even ended, the U.S. Geological Survey already had measured roughly 17 “peaks of record,” including numerous flood peaks that had been the largest in more than five decades. Waters brought destruction in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana.

In addition to property damage, however, floods are one of the leading causes of fatalities from natural disasters in the United States. More than 200 flood-related deaths are reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with more than half of them involving vehicles, such as drivers attempting to traverse water that’s too deep.

Internationally, floods in already fragile environments can lead to a host of other issues, especially in terms of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Recent floods have wreaked havoc in Thailand, Australia, Argentina, the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, and various nations in Africa.

In many ways, technological advances and early warning systems have helped mitigate damage. But as urbanization continues—increasing structures and population in floodplains and reducing the amount of soil available for absorbing extra water—floods will continue to grow in size and frequency.

Insurance is available for those in the United States—mandated for those in high-risk areas—but gaps remain between payouts and actual costs. In addition, more can be done in the areas of prevention; helping flooded communities “build back better;” and continuing to research and implement new strategies domestically and internationally related to sustainability, drainage, growth, and infrastructure.

Key Facts

The danger of floods expands beyond those in high-risk areas. Tropical storms, for example, can dump heavy rains hundreds of miles inland, as seen with recent hurricanes. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, more than one in five flood insurance claims come from areas not considered high risk. A high-risk area has a one in four chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage.

Flooding conditions are heavily impacted by the existing state of the ground. Snowmelt, for example, can cause flooding when the ground is too frozen to absorb water. Difficulties with absorption also follow drought, often leading to flash flooding due to over-parched ground and debris in drainage systems.

The National Flood Insurance Program, established by the U.S. Congress in 1968, is undergoing changes. The program enables property owners and renters to purchase insurance from the government against future flood damage. It was meant to be self-sustaining, but funds were more than depleted following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. An $18 billion loan from the Treasury Department followed, and Hurricane Sandy has only exacerbated the situation. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012 has been considered an “overhaul,” but it’s not without controversy. For one thing, increased premiums are part of the plan—as is remapping of flood hazard areas. Some may newly be considered high risk, meaning the insurance would be required.

Aging infrastructure—and increased development beneath dams—is a concern. There are more than 84,000 dams across the country—and the average age is 52 years old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In general, urban development increases the size and frequency of floods, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Construction and new development affect natural drainage. In addition, population growth near dams and levees can mean higher rates of injuries should a problem occur

Internationally, floods often lead to a variety of related issues. Displaced persons, for example, can find overcrowding, safety issues, and sanitation challenges in camps. Longstanding stagnant water and dead animals in the streets also can affect water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), in addition to increasing the spread of disease. Finally, loss of crops can have widespread impact in areas already challenged by food insecurity.

How to Help

  • Fund awareness for prevention and mitigation. Initiatives might include, for example, homeowners preparing simple kits to have on hand in case of evacuation; outlining evacuation routes; and spreading the dangers of driving in flooded waters.
  • Help fill gaps between insurance payouts and actual costs for those in affected communities. Most homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover against flooding, and flood insurance may not cover all costs incurred.
  • Support NGOs already working in disaster affected communities. Whether nationally or internationally, seek out the organizations with long-standing relationships in place, in addition to those who understand unique cultural, geographical, and operational differences.
  • Fund remediation of mold in disaster-affected areas. Mold continues to be a widespread concern, for example, for those hit by Hurricane Sandy.
  • Support and implement the findings of relevant studies on climate change and on the effects of urbanization on flooding. Mitigating damage in the future will likely take a bigger-picture approach.
  • Help provide case managers and conveners for community meetings interested in “building back better.” Confusion and disagreements can exist, for example, among those deciding whether to return flood damaged areas to “the way they were” prior to the incident.
  • Supply evacuation “go kits” for vulnerable populations. These kits might include, for example, batteries, hand-crank weather radios, flashlights, personal hygiene items, first aid supplies, a three-day supply of food and water, clothes, rain gear, and other things.

What Donors Are Doing

  • The Rockefeller Foundation  granted $90,000 to Chulalongkorn University’s Asian Research Center for Migration to study the political economy of floods and their impact on migration-based livelihoods in Southeast Asia. The research will inform evidence-based policy recommendations.
  • The Walton Family Foundation, in conjunction with the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture, offers competitive grants in support of habitat restoration on frequently flooded agricultural lands within the delta of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to increase agricultural productivity in a sustainable way in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Among the efforts: use of seeds that are more resistant to disease, drought, and flooding.
  • The Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation included, for example, John Scott-Railton among its 2012 fellowship grant recipients. His research into climate change and adaptation builds a case study on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, where intense rains after decades of drought have led to widespread flooding.  The organization drives positive environmental change by recognizing, fostering, and mobilizing a diverse network of environmental leaders.
  • The Kresge Foundation  granted close to $400,000 to the New Jersey Climate Change Adaptation Alliance, facilitated by Rutgers University, to help develop public policy recommendations for state and local climate change.
  • In 2012, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs awarded a grant to Irwin Lopez’ for a project titled “Increasing Flood Early Warning and Response Capacity through Community Participation: The Cases of Barangays Mangin, Dagupan and Banaba, San Mateo, Philippines.”

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