Tuesday, June 24, 2008

JMO - Floods and CNN

I watched the story on CNN about the flooding in Gulfport, Illinois (article and video), and listening to you would think FEMA can't do anything right for the flood victims. And while I'm not a great fan of FEMA after the Katrina disaster, both the hurricanes and FEMA's reaction and help, or lack of it, but in this case FEMA is entirely right and CNN simply screwed the story every way but right.

And why you ask?

For one I've studied floods and flooding on and off since my graduate school years in the middle 1970's and I researched the history of the flood insurance program when conducting a natural hazard perception study of the Skagit River in northwest Washington. And with my work as a hydrologist with the USGS, I worked with local water rersourece and emergency management agencies for the collection, production and dissemination of real-time streamflow data.

In short, I'm knowledgeable and experienced enough to see the flaws in the CNN story.

For one, the FEMA representative is correct in that the law only specifies actions for the 100-year, or 1 percent flood event, namely that communities be provided flood inundation maps for that flood event, that communities ensure the development and implementation of flood managment and mitigation plans for federal disaster funds, that mortage and loan institutions only provide loans for homes and property in the inundation zone with flood insurance, and that real estate agents and brokers advice buyers of the need for flood insurance with the mortage before they buy the home and property.

Anything more extreme than the 100-year flood is not covered in the law, and is outside the control of FEMA and the federal government. So if a community, like Gulfport, has leeves for the 500-year, or 0.2 percent, flood event, none of the rules apply. It is up to the property and home buyer to determine the risk and get flood insurance at their expense. No one, including the local government or FEMA has the obligation or responsibility to tell them, or even alert them.

And when a leeve of this level of protection breaks, it's not FEMA's fault the town got flooded and it's not FEMA responsbility to write checks for the loss of home and property. And for the reporter to insist the government failed is wrong, completely wrong. It's the risk they took living in a community with such flood protection and the consequences they got when it failed. Not the government's.

What didn't they see and understand about living behind a high leeve holding back a really big river?

It is not the responsibility of the taxpayer to bail out those people in Gulfport. And it is disingenuous of the reporter to imply it is. But apparently the reporter decided the truth wasn't essential to the story. I'm sorry those people were flooded, but they knew the risk and chose to live there, and they knew flooding was a possiblity where insurance would have helped. But did they ask? No, they expected to be told.

And when faced with the reality the government didn't have that obligation, they chose to vent through the media, specifically CNN and this one uninformed reporter.

And why just to the 100-year flood event?

During the 1960's when the debate was going on in Congress and the federal government qbout flood insurance, it was hard to force the insurance companies, mortage brokers and loan companies, and the home and property owners to agree to flood insurance in the first place since the federal government had written full damange and recovery checks to everyone and every community, and to require all of them to help foot the bill wasn't easy.

And at the time the scientist said that the best statistics could only reasonably accurately determine a 100-year flood event and the best mapping could only resolve the inundation depths of a 100-year flood to plus/minus three feet. And when tasked with mapping the inundation areas, the Federal government got earfuls at meetings to reduce the area or move the line within the floodzone to remove homes and property from the requirement for flood insturance, and that was by the home and property owners too.

So, the 100-year flood event was the best case compromise, where people agreed and science could accommodate. And it's been fought ever since to raise it by the very same groups of people who fought it then but then cry foul today when flooded, the home and propetry owners. Why? Flood insurance, althought subsidized, isn't cheap, and few home owners like writing checks for what they see isn't necessary, until it floods.

In short, home and property owners want the federal government to bail out their stupidity. Harsh but true. I heard it over and over in my research and over and over in other news stories, namely it's not their fault they live in a flood zone, and it's the government's responsibility to pay for it anytime they get flooded. Sorry, that's what flood insurance is for, not my checkbook. And it's especially true in the case in the story.

The town was protected by a 500-year flood leeve, eliminating the requirement to inform home and property owners and to mandate flood insurance. And it wasn't the community's responsibility to have a flood management and mitigation plan to receive federal funds. So should the federal government pay for a leeve failure caused by a flood?

These are the same people flooded in the 1993 Mississippi floods. They knew what happens and what could happen? And that's not stupidity? And we should pay for it again? Sorry, stand in line behind the Katrina and other disaster victims, they're well ahead of you waiting for their money. At least there we know with Katrina FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and the President were the stupid ones and deserve to be held accountable, but weren't. Here they weren't.

But being an election year, and in the Midwest, it won't surprise me if Congress passes a recovery bill to help and by this fall, they'll get their checks to rebuild in the same place again with a new, rebuilt leeve protecting them. Any bets they opt out of flood insurance for the 500-year flood event with the home and property insurance because it's too expensive?


  1. This is what boggles my mind. How could anyone who lives behind a levee especially after Katrina, not have flood insurance? What would be a good idea is to make $ available to elevate houses available BEFORE flooding occurs. Also, no new houses should be built behind a levee unless they are raised very high. Here's another crazy thing. My house got 3.5 feet of water and I only have to raise it a foot to rebuild. Of course we will raise it over 6 feet. That's just common sense.

  2. Thanks for the response. You're right, it boggles my mind too when faced the reality, but then where were those home owners when they renewed their home and property insurance? Write a bigger check for flood insurance they didn't think they would need? They opted out.

    I've seen communities mandate raised homes or face loss of federal disaster relief. It's part of the mandate flood mitigation and emergency plans they have to have in place, preferably tested on lessor non-destructive floods.

    There's a home community on the Umpqua River where all the houses are raised one-story (used for storage and garage) due to the 1964 flood. It was that or face not being reimbursed for flood damage the next time.

    In the Midwest, however, like some northwest river valleys, you have to live on a floodplain with the leeve and risk of flooding. It's the nature of the land when they controlled the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Instead of raising the home, some homeowners elevate their homes on small "hills" which also works and keeps the first floor access.

    Good luck with your home.