Recently, Central Pennsylvania has been flooding a lot. This past week, parts of Columbia County were hit. A few weeks prior, flooding prompted Governor Tom Wolf to tour parts of Pennsylvania that were hit particularly badly. One of the roads I occasionally drive on is still closed after the water washed a segment of it away.
Flooding is expensive. Every year, the National Flood Insurance Program (run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA) collects around $3 billion to cover flood insurance (Glor, et al). That number doesn’t take into account disaster relief programs or money spent on uninsured properties. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, economists estimated between $30 and $100 billion in damages, only 27 percent of which was insured (Basak). Recovery after Harvey remains a work in progress. More broadly, the federal government alone has spent $350 billion on disaster recovery over the past decade (Coy and Flavelle).
In Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2015 the federal government spent $750 million in relief from floods, hurricanes, and storms (“Pennsylvania”). Flooding is “the single greatest cause of property loss due to natural hazards in the state,” totaling $91.6 million in losses annually from 1996 to 2014 (“Pennsylvania”). Pennsylvanians, who live in a commonwealth with dozens of major rivers that reach almost every corner of Pennsylvania, are at risk of flooding even if they don’t live directly in a flood zone. Nationally, 25 percent of flood insurance claims originate in places with low or moderate estimated risk of flooding (Knight).
In short, Pennsylvanians and Americans are at risk of flooding. Unfortunately, both Americans as a whole and Pennsylvanians in particular have spent much time removing natural protections from flood damage and little time securing their properties and investments from rising water. Over its first 200 years, continental America eliminated over 50 percent of its wetlands, or over 110 million acres of natural flood protection (Dahl). During the same time period, Pennsylvania saw even an even greater portion of its wetlands disappear (“State”). Wetlands are areas of land that are always or frequently covered in water and have great water-absorption capabilities. Wetlands can absorb thousands of gallons of water very quickly, providing crucial buffers when water levels rapidly rise, preventing flooding.
As America expanded, it built thousands of dams (87,000, in fact). Now, these dams have undergone decades of deterioration. Some engineers estimate by 2020, 70 percent of the dams in the country will be over 50 years old, the point at which experts start to doubt the integrity of the dam (Williams). Pennsylvania houses 3,400 dams, around one-fourth of which are considered high hazard (failure of a high hazard dam would likely result in loss of life) (De Tore). In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Pennsylvania dams an overall rating of C- citing concerns about aging dams (De Tore). Aging dams are problematic not only because they wear down over time, but also because landscapes change over long periods and communities are built and expanded upon. Some dams that were originally built in rural areas are now tasked with protecting little hubs of civilization, a task for which they are often ill-equipped.
In floods, failing dams can result in catastrophic effects. In 2015, around 25 dams across South Carolina failed during a flood, resulting in 17 deaths and $12 billion in damages (Williams). Although experts are hesitant to put a figure on specifically how much damage the dams’ failures added to the damage from the flooding alone, suffice it to say that dumping thousands of gallons of water that was stored in a dam into an already-drenched town causes serious problems. Pennsylvania is home to one of the worst dam failures in history, the Johnstown flood of 1889. When an earthen dam 14 miles outside of town collapsed after days of heavy rain, 20 million tons of water came crashing into the settlement, killing 2,200 people and leveling the town (Clarke). Around 85 percent of dams in the U.S. today are earthen. Fortunately, both construction and supervision of dams have greatly improved over the past century.
Besides wetland destruction and dam failure, climate change is also predicted to have an effect on flooding. Over the past 50 years heavy downpours have become more common worldwide as global temperatures have risen. This trend is predicted to continue over the foreseeable future. By 2100, the average floodplain in the United States is projected to have increased by 45 percent (“Manage”). Average annual damages from flooding are projected to increase by $750 million over the 21st century in comparison to the 20th (“Manage”).
Fortunately, steps are currently being taken to mitigate flood damage, although there is still much work to be done. In 1972, the Clean Water Act established a “no net loss of wetlands” principle that America has been striving to attain ever since (Ashoka). In the early 1970s, around 450,000 acres of wetlands were disappearing annually. By 2008, that number was only 18,000 (Ashoka). Further, thousands of acres of ruined wetlands have been bought by public and private institutions dedicated to wetland restoration. For example, Minnesota’s Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 20,000 acres of land and is the largest wetland-restoration effort in U.S. history (“Largest”).
Further, a recent push for “green infrastructure” has proven economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Green infrastructure is a term that applies to infrastructure built with environmental preservation and disaster mitigation in mind. Examples include rain gardens, subterranean infiltration trenches, underground storage, and stormwater ponds (“Manage”). When implemented in St. Paul, Minnesota, these structures (excluding an unfinished stormwater pond) “reduced runoff volumes by 99-100 percent” (“Manage”). Additionally, they came with $500 million in savings as compared to previous plans to install a storm sewer pipe.
As another study commissioned by the EPA indicates, green infrastructure does far more than just mitigate flooding (“Flood”). It also addresses water quality and stream protection (Atkins). (Wetlands, for example, play a role in filtering chemicals such as phosphorous out of agricultural runoff.) The same study indicates that green infrastructure could result in $1 billion in savings from flood costs alone. It assumes that new infrastructure is built in an eco-friendly manner and does not include the benefits of retrofitting existing infrastructure.
Individual Americans and Pennsylvanians can also take steps to protect their property from flood damage. FEMA recommends elevating furnaces, water heaters, and switchboards above flood levels. Additionally, waterproofing basements and installing “check valves” in water pipes to prevent flood water from backing up pipers are both recommended renovations for people living in flood zones.
Flooding is not fun. It can be very dangerous and is often very expensive. Fortunately, action can be taken to reduce the frequency of floods and mitigate their effects when prevention is not possible. Fortunately, with an investment now, flood damages can be reduced for centuries to come.
Ashoka, Logan Yonavjak. “How Private Capital is Restoring U.S. Wetlands.” Forbes, 25 Apr. 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2014/04/25/how-private-capital-is-restoring-u-s-wetlands/#71863485e83f.
Basak, Sonali. “Harvey Costs Seen at Catastrophic Levels With Many Uninsured.” Bloomberg, 27 Aug. 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-27/harvey-s-cost-reaches-catastrophe-as-modelers-see-many-uninsured.
Clarke, Connie. “The JOhnstown Flood: the Wost Dam Failure in U.S. History.” ABC News, 2 Mar. 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2918360&page=1.
Coy, Peter and Christopher Flavelle. “Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning.” Bloomberg, 31 Aug. 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-08-31/a-hard-rain-and-a-hard-lesson-for-houston.
Dahl, Thomas E. Wetlands: Losees in the United States 1780’s to 1980’s. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1990. pp. 1. https://www.fws.gov/wetlands/documents/Wetlands-Losses-in-the-United-States-1780s-to-1980s.pdf.
De Tore, Jackie. “FOX43 Finds Out: Hundreds of Pennsylvania’s dams are considered “High Hazard.” Fox43, 5 Apr. 2017, https://fox43.com/2017/04/05/hundreds-of-pennsylvanias-dams-are-considered-high-hazard/.
“Flood Loss Avoidance: Benefits of Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management.” Atkins, Dec 2015. Prepared for EPA. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-05/documents/flood-avoidance-green-infrastructure-12-14-2015.pdf.
Glor, Jeff, et al. “Federal program meant to help flood victims spends millions fighting claims.” CBS News, 30 Apr. 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/national-flood-insurance-program-meant-to-help-victims-spends-millions-fighting-claims/.
Knight, Sandra. “Things You Can Do To Mitigate Against Flooding.” FEMA, 2 June 2017, https://www.fema.gov/blog/2012-03-14/things-you-can-do-mitigate-against-flooding.
“Largest Prairie-Wetland Restoration in U.S. History Hits Major Milestone.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 10 July 2018, https://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/glacialridgetnc.html.
“Manage Flood Risk.” Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/manage-flood-risk.
“Pennsylvania: Flood risk and mitigation.” Pew Trusts, 12 May 2016, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2016/05/flood-risk-and-mitigation-strategies-for-pennsylvania.
“State Summary Highlights.” U.S. Geological Survey, 7 Mar. 1997, https://water.usgs.gov/nwsum/WSP2425/state_highlights_summary.html.
Williams, Casey. “America’s Crumbling Dams Are A Disaster Waiting To Happen.” Huffington Post, 18 May 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/america-crumbling-dam-infrastructure_us_573a332be4b08f96c183deac.