It’s not as ‘nat­u­ral’ as we think: 5 dan­ger­ous myths about flood­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIV­E - By Samantha Mon­tano Samantha Mon­tano is a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the De­part­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment at North Dakota State Uni­ver­sity. She stud­ies dis­as­ters and writes at www.dis­as­ter-ol­ogy.com.

Flood­ing, the costli­est and most com­mon dis­as­ter in the United States, leaves no part of the coun­try un­touched: from nor’east­ers along the coast of Maine to king tides in Florida to over­flow­ing rivers in Nebraska to mud­slides in Cal­i­for­nia. Af­ter a “bomb cy­clone” swamped the Mid­west last month, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion warned that this spring might be “an un­prece­dented flood sea­son,” putting 200 mil­lion Amer­i­cans at risk. Im­ages of en­tire cities un­der­wa­ter, boats float­ing down in­ter­states and bridges washed away cap­ture the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion.

De­spite how fre­quently the U.S. suf­fers flood­ing, dan­ger­ous myths per­sist, shap­ing how we pre­pare for and re­spond to floods. Here are five of those myths.

Myth No. 1: Floods are “nat­u­ral” dis­as­ters.

Flood dis­as­ters are in­evitably re­ferred to as “nat­u­ral.” See, for ex­am­ple, this head­line from The At­lantic, about 2016 flood­ing in Louisiana: “Amer­ica Is Ig­nor­ing Another Nat­u­ral Dis­as­ter Near the Gulf.” Or from the Los An­ge­les Times in 2017 about Hur­ri­cane Har­vey: “Har­vey is likely to be the sec­ond-most costly nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in U.S. his­tory.” And last month, Nebraska Gov. Pete Rick­etts called the flood­ing in his state “the most wide­spread nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in our state’s his­tory.”

But dis­as­ters are cre­ated by the in­ter­ac­tion of a hazard with our com­mu­ni­ties. It may be nat­u­ral for heavy rain­fall or snowmelt to cause rivers to over­flow their banks, but the ac­tual de­struc­tion that re­sults — dam­aged in­fra­struc­ture, destroyed homes, ru­ined crops, the strip­ping of top­soil — is a re­sult of hu­man be­hav­ior. Hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties de­stroy nat­u­ral flood pro­tec­tion and put more peo­ple in harm’s way. When forests are cut down and bay­ous paved over to make way for de­vel­op­ment, it ex­ac­er­bates a com­mu­nity’s over­all flood risk.

And our ef­forts to pre­vent flood­ing can ac­tu­ally worsen the risk: Analy­ses by ge­ol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis found that new lev­ees along the Mis­sis­sippi River made floods more fre­quent and more se­vere — spurring the con­struc­tion of even more pro­tec­tive lev­ees, and lead­ing to a “hy­dro­logic spi­ral.”

Myth No. 2: Home­own­ers in­sur­ance cov­ers flood dam­age.

Find­ing out your home­own­ers in­sur­ance doesn’t cover floods is an un­wel­come sur­prise when you’re stand­ing in the mid­dle of your in­un­dated liv­ing room. Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Sandy, some New York­ers dis­cov­ered that their home­own­ers in­sur­ance would not pay for flood dam­age: “They’re cov­er­ing five shin­gles and a piece of gut­ter, and that’s it,” one told a Reuters re­porter. Sim­i­larly, af­ter flood­ing hit Iowa in 2018, an em­ployee with the state’s in­sur­ance reg­u­la­tor told The Des Moines Reg­is­ter that he’d been field­ing calls from res­i­dents with home­own­ers in­sur­ance who had not re­al­ized it didn’t cover sewer backups. “Now that they have reached out to their in­sur­ance com­pany, they’re find­ing no cov­er­age was af­forded for that,” he said.

Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma, Robert W. Klein, then a pro­fes­sor at Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity, told The Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion: “A lot of peo­ple just don’t know their home­own­ers (in­sur­ance) won’t cover them for flood.” Howard Mills, a for­mer New York in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner, said in The Wall Street Jour­nal: “Even fi­nan­cially lit­er­ate peo­ple do not un­der­stand that the stan­dard home­owner’s pol­icy does not cover flood.”

Nearly all home in­sur­ance poli­cies ex­clude floods. When wide­spread flood­ing na­tion­wide in the early 1900s over­whelmed pri­vate in­sur­ance agen­cies, they stopped of­fer­ing flood cov­er­age. In 1968, in an ef­fort to fill the gap, Congress cre­ated the Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram, or NFIP. It is now the pri­mary source of flood cov­er­age for the United States, with more than 5 mil­lion poli­cies is­sued in 2018. That cov­ers only a frac­tion of peo­ple who might need it. In south­east Texas, which has rel­a­tively high rates of NFIP en­roll­ment, 80 per­cent of res­i­dents were unin­sured dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

Myth No. 3: A “100-year flood” is a his­toric, once-in-a-cen­tury dis­as­ter.

De­scrib­ing floods in terms of “100year,” “500-year” and “1,000-year” of­ten makes peo­ple think the dis­as­ter was the most se­vere to oc­cur in that time frame — as en­cap­su­lated by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tweet call­ing Har­vey a “once in 500 year flood!” He’s not alone. When re­searchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley sur­veyed res­i­dents in Stock­ton, Calif., about their per­ceived flood risk, they found that al­though 34 per­cent claimed fa­mil­iar­ity with the term “100-year flood,” only 2.6 per­cent de­fined it cor­rectly. The most com­mon re­sponses were some vari­a­tion of “A ma­jor flood comes every 100 years — it’s a worst-case sce­nario” and “Ac­cord­ing to his­tory, every 100 years or so, ma­jor flood­ing has oc­curred in the area and through doc­u­mented his­tory, they can pre­dict or hy­poth­e­size on what to ex­pect and plan ac­cord­ingly and hope­fully cor­rect.”

In fact, the met­ric com­mu­ni­cates the flood risk of a given area: A home in a 100-year flood plain has a 1 per­cent chance of flood­ing in a given year. In 2018, El­li­cott City, Md., ex­pe­ri­enced its sec­ond 1,000-year flood in two years, and with Har­vey, Hous­ton faced its third 500-year flood in three years.

That risk con­stantly changes, be­cause of fac­tors such as the nat­u­ral move­ment of rivers, the de­vel­op­ment of new parcels of land and cli­mate change’s in­flu­ence on rain­fall, snowmelt, storm surges and sea level. “Be­cause of all the un­cer­tainty, a flood that has a 1 per­cent an­nual risk of hap­pen­ing has a high water mark that is best de­scribed as a range, not a sin­gle max­i­mum point,” ac­cord­ing to FiveThir­tyEight.

Myth No. 4: Loot­ing is com­mon af­ter floods.

Per­haps one of the most per­sis­tent myths about flood­ing is that peo­ple of­ten use the cri­sis as an op­por­tu­nity to steal from empty homes and busi­nesses. ThenNew Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN to ex­pect law­less­ness dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey: “Loot­ing is go­ing to come next ... the bad el­e­ments that ex­ist in every so­ci­ety and every state will try to take ad­van­tage of it.” As Hur­ri­cane Florence made land­fall in North Carolina, a lo­cal news out­let claimed that “loot­ing is as com­mon when hur­ri­canes strike as high winds and flood­ing.”

This myth partly stems from a mis­un­der­stand­ing of what “loot­ing” means. There is a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween ran­sack­ing a jew­elry store and tak­ing emer­gency med­i­cal sup­plies from a phar­macy, and some re­ports of loot­ing mis­tak­enly de­scribe the lat­ter. “That’s not loot­ing; that’s sur­vival mode,” a mil­i­tary of­fi­cial who over­saw the re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina told The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Decades of re­search have found that loot­ing af­ter dis­as­ters is ex­tremely rare. In a study of 100 such events, Dis­as­ter Re­search Cen­ter ex­perts found many sto­ries and ru­mors about loot­ing, but very few ver­i­fied cases. In­stead, peo­ple en­gage in pro-so­cial be­hav­ior: They act ra­tio­nally, even gen­er­ously, to help one another.

This myth has dan­ger­ous con­se­quences: It can de­ter peo­ple from evac­u­at­ing their homes. In in­ter­views with re­searchers, res­i­dents who re­fused to leave be­fore Hur­ri­cane An­drew in 1992 and Hur­ri­cane Bon­nie in 1998 cited the de­sire to pro­tect their prop­erty as a rea­son.

Myth No. 5: Floods dis­cour­age peo­ple from build­ing in risky ar­eas.

A con­sul­tant in Florida who ad­vises prop­erty own­ers on flood risks told Rolling Stone that “prop­erty buy­ers are get­ting smarter. They are mov­ing to higher el­e­va­tions, one foot at a time.” In an in­ter­view with Yale En­vi­ron­ment 360, ma­rine sci­en­tist Or­rin Pilkey pre­dicted that “sinking prices will cause a dra­matic re­duc­tion in new beach­front de­vel­op­ment na­tion­wide.” Con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Ben Shapiro summed up at­ti­tudes held by many when he said, of sea-level rise: “You think peo­ple aren’t just go­ing to sell their homes and move?”

But our cur­rent ap­proach to emer­gency man­age­ment ac­tu­ally en­cour­ages peo­ple to rebuild rather than move. The Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil says that for every $100 the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency has spent to rebuild flooded homes, it has al­lo­cated only $1.72 to move peo­ple and buy out their prop­er­ties. And res­i­dents aren’t just stay­ing put: Peo­ple are mov­ing to flood-prone ar­eas. An anal­y­sis by the mag­a­zine Gov­ern­ing found that the pop­u­la­tion growth within 100-year flood plains was faster than in ar­eas out­side flood zones. And a re­port by Cli­mate Cen­tral and Zil­low found that in New Jersey, about 2,700 new homes, worth an es­ti­mated $2.6 bil­lion, rose in the flood-risk zone af­ter 2009, “most likely driven by re­con­struc­tion fol­low­ing Sandy.” This up­ward trend also held true in nine other coastal states: Con­struc­tion growth in flood-risk zones out­stripped growth in safer ar­eas.

E. JA­SON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Chad Tongue steps through flood­wa­ter to check on his home along the Rock River in Mach­es­ney Park near Rock­ford in March. Home­own­ers in­sur­ance typ­i­cally ex­cludes flood dam­age.

ALEXAN­DRA WIMLEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Michelle Cree­gan, left, and Ni­cole Or­lowski pass a sand­bag along a line of vol­un­teers build­ing a bar­ri­cade around a house in north­west sub­ur­ban Al­go­nquin in July 2017.

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