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Catastrophic Midwest flooding highlights risks of new climate reality

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No question the current floods were unexpected, but the infrastructure and insurance policies that protect us need an update

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 aerial photo shows flooding near the Platte River in in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, south of Omaha. The worst of the flooding so far has been in Nebraska, southwestern Iowa and northwestern Missouri.

For areas of the Midwest hit by this year’s deluge of rain and melting snow, extreme weather has caused some of the worst flooding in living memory. Governors declared states of emergency in Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and North Dakota. Thousands of homes and farms are facing water damage and the problem will get worse before it gets better.

As the record snowpack from the wettest winter on record melts over the next few weeks, it’ll add to already overflowing waterways. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts major flood risk along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Red River of the North, defined as “extensive inundation of structures and roads, significant evacuations of people and/or transfer of property to higher elevations.” Federal officials warn that 200 million people in 25 states face a flood risk through May.

“This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season,” Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, told Wired.

The midwestern floods join the lengthening list of unprecedented and unexpected natural disasters accelerated and made worse by climate change. And, just like other climate events that have caused widespread damage, our planning, resiliency, and flood insurance programs are ill-equipped to cope.

Rivers, and oceans, have become huge flooding risks in the climate change era

When flood risk in the country is discussed, it’s often in the context of coastal communities and rising sea levels brought on by climate change. “Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate,” a detailed analysis of future flood risks and property damage by the Union of Concerned Scientists, predicted that by 2045, roughly 300,000 homes and commercial properties on the country’s coastline may face chronic, disruptive flooding, threatening $135 billion in property.

But overflowing rivers and inland flooding present similar threats. Scientists are still determining the degree to which climate change impacted this spring’s flood cycle, but they do know that warmer temperatures, which lead to more moisture in the air, can potentially turn a minor flood into a full-blown disaster. This winter and early spring, the Mississippi River basin received three times as much rainfall as normal.

The last few decades have witnessed an unmistakable trend towards more extreme weather in the Midwest. Heavy-rain events have risen 37 percent since the 1950s, per the National Climate Assessment, which says climate change will bring extreme heat, drought, and heavy downpours to bear on America’s farms and eventually decrease productivity. Going forward, the Midwest is expected to receive some of the greatest increases in yearly precipitation.

There’s no question the current Midwest floods were somewhat unexpected. But the infrastructure, flood maps, and policies that protect us against that risk need a significant update to properly protect homes, investments, and lives. This country’s system of flood insurance is broken, in large part to an under-investment in resiliency and a willful ignorance of climate risk.

The economic costs of climate risk

Unlike recent hurricanes, which cost insurance companies billions of dollars, this current wave of river floods in the Midwest hasn’t registered as much with the industry, because they have little risk. Few Midwesterners have policies, and few realize the risk, since federal flood insurance maps are often outdated or don’t factor in future risk.

“Most of the people in the area don’t have flood insurance coverage,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of media relations at the Insurance Information Institute. “Most of the insurance coverage in the area will be things like car and trucks, or crop insurance.”

Many of the states hardest hit by the floods have little to no flood insurance, especially in light of the extensive potential damage. In Nebraska, the state’s 49,100 farms and ranches cover more than 45 million acres, using 92 percent of the state’s total land area and adding $25 billion to the state’s economy. According to figures from the Insurance Information Institute, there were roughly 8,500 flood insurance policies in place statewide as of January, and roughly 800,000 housing units.

Contrast that to current damage estimates for the state. The federal government predicts roughly $1.3 billion in flood losses for the state.

The coverage numbers aren’t much better in other states affected by the floods. Wisconsin has just 12,437 policies statewide, while Iowa has 12,180. According to National Flood Insurance Program data, just 1,000 claims have been opened in Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa this month, mostly due to low market penetration.

There have been big floods before, but not this consistently

Significant floods have hit this region before. In 2017, Missouri experienced historic floods. But big floods and shifting weather patterns haven’t resulted in a significant uptake in flood insurance policies throughout the region.

“There’s no memory these floods took place,” says Worters. “People forgot floods from the past.”

Homeowners suffering from this year’s flooding aren’t any less prepared or aware than those in high-risk parts of the country. Worters says that in many regions, insurance policies are purchased right after a big weather event, and then in a few years, many people become more complacent and stop paying for the insurance.

The problem is that flood risk, from an insurance perspective, is based on outdated maps, and insurance is too cheap to change behavior, according to Christine Klein, a professor of law at the University of Florida. As she wrote in The Atlantic, maps tied the flood risk to “100-year floodplain,” areas believed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding each year, which underrepresented the potential risk to homeowners. In many cases, severe flooding occurred outside mapped floodplains, taking people by surprise and without sufficient insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently released “Risk Rating 2.0,”a new system to gauge risk and recommend insurance purchases, incorporating flood triggers such as heavy precipitation and laying the groundwork to link insurance premiums more closely to risk, according to Klein.

Tom Larsen, a flood analyst with CoreLogic, says that by making it easier for those outside of identified flood hazard zones to obtain cheap insurance, we’ll create more resiliency.

“We need more insured survivors,” says Larsen. “That helps them build back more quickly, and helps communities bounce back.”

Adding to existing economic strain

“Risk Rating 2.0” will hopefully begin the process of adjusting the nation’s flood insurance system. Worters says there will be a lot of changes to NFIP flood maps going forward. While these changes won’t cover every possibility, they will hopefully mean more Americans are prepared for future storms.

But the economic damage, and insurance risks, of the current disaster will only exacerbate the business woes for farmers in the affected regions, who are already facing economic pressures from current trade wars.

The number of U.S. farms fell by 100,000 between 2010 and 2017, according to the USDA, as consolidation pushed out small farmers. That process will only accelerate after this spring’s flood. Without flood insurance to help get farmers rebound, government at all levels, as well as charitable groups, will need to step in and help (on March 11, the Trump administration released its 2020 budget, which proposed a 15 percent cut to funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, calling its subsidies to farmers “overly generous”).

It’s another example of how climate change acts, by accelerating existing stresses.