As Flooding Risks Rise, Communities Can Take Steps to Prepare


This post is part of a blog series for Getting Climate Smart, a joint effort by NRDC and American Rivers to guide state action on climate and water preparedness. 

This guest post is by Ben Chou, policy analyst at NRDC, as part of a blog series for Getting Climate Smart, a joint effort by NRDC and American Rivers to guide state action on climate and water preparedness. 


Flooding along the Des Plaines River, WI | © CAD1976

Flooding along the Des Plaines River, WI | © CAD1976

Across much of the Midwest, rising waters and flash flooding are threatening public safety, homes and businesses, farmland, and commerce and transportation.  Torrential rains late last week sent many rivers over the tops of their banks in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri. 

In Illinois alone, 44 counties have been declared state disaster areas.  As towns begin to clean up the debris and damage, the threat of more rain could pose additional flooding risks and as floodwaters make their way downstream, other communities could be in jeopardy.

This pattern of major flooding year-after-year is seemingly becoming a trend.  In 2011, extremely heavy rainfall in conjunction with melting snowpack led to record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries, causing more than $5 billion in damage. 

As climate change increasingly fuels heavy rainfall events and contributes to greater flooding risks, communities and states across the U.S. must plan and prepare.  Our recently released Getting Climate Smart guide (described in my previous post) contains over 100 strategies for addressing water-related climate change risks for urban infrastructure.  To manage flooding risks, communities can flood-proof structures at risk, conserve and restore floodplain areas, and limit development in flood-prone areas, to name a few.  And many communities have already taken these steps.

Flooding of the Missouri River along the Iowa Nebraska border | © U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Flooding of the Missouri River along the Iowa Nebraska border | © U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In 2008, severe flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inundated 14 percent of the city, damaging over 5,000 homes and displacing 10,000 residents.  To prevent loss of life and reduce damage from future flooding disasters, the city implemented a voluntary buyout program of significantly damaged residential and commercial properties.  More than 1,000 flood-damaged facilities have been acquired through this program, and the city is nearing completion of the demolition of these and other damaged structures.  Once the structures are demolished, the acquired land is dedicated and maintained in perpetuity as open space, helping to provide both green space for the community and protection against future flooding.

The City of Roseville, CA also has taken major steps [PDF] toward reducing community vulnerability after repetitive flooding events.  The city’s regulatory floodplain contains an area greater than the FEMA-defined 100-year floodplain, which is the default standard for many communities.  And with some exceptions for infill areas, no development is allowed within the future floodplain.  Residential lots adjacent to designated floodplain areas also must be elevated at least 2 feet above the regulatory flood elevation. 

These measures and others made Roseville the first city to qualify as a Class 1 community under the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System, which provides insurance premium reductions to communities that implement flood risk reduction measures.  In fact, the city remains the only Class 1 community in the entire country, which qualifies residents for a 45 percent discount on flood insurance premiums.

As the actions of Cedar Rapids and Roseville demonstrate, communities are not powerless in the fight against flooding.  And our Getting Climate Smart guide provides the way forward for states and communities that are looking to reduce threats to public safety, homes, and businesses.

Please join us for a one-hour webinar on May 14 at 3pm EDT, where we’ll provide highlights from our new guide and state officials from California and Massachusetts will share about their climate preparedness planning and implementation experiences.