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Floods are trapping Americans in more ways than one

When deciding where to live, Americans choose near the water. Close to 40 percent of the population lives in coastal counties even though they make up less than 10 percent of the nation’s land mass. The share of people living in the most hurricane-prone U.S. state — Florida — has nearly doubled since 1950. From July 2020 to July 2021, Florida had the largest net migration of any state. 

But living near water puts people at risk of flooding from high tides, heavy rainfall, and destructive hurricanes. With climate change increasing flood risk, in some cases exponentially, people increasingly find themselves trapped with flood disasters looming.

Flooding can trap communities and people in multiple ways. In the most literal sense, floodwaters can physically trap people in their homes. Earlier this month, Hurricane Ian brought devastating storm surges as high as 12 to 18 feet to southwest Florida residents’ doors and windows, resulting in more than 2,500 rescues and more than 120 confirmed deaths. The storm also swept away the only road access to Sanibel Island, Fla., home to almost 7,000 people. 

However, floodwaters do not have to be catastrophic for their impacts to be felt.

Residents of coastal cities like Miami Beach, Fla., Atlantic City, N.J. and Norfolk, Va. frequently find themselves trapped by floodwaters from high tides or even heavy rainfalls that prevent them from getting to work or school. In 2021, floodwaters from Tropical Storm Ida overwhelmed the New York City subway system resulting in the suspension of trains and stranding passengers across the city. Our highly developed, populated coastlines and aging infrastructure cannot withstand the floods of today — much less tomorrow — leaving residents unable to carry out basic tasks under the threat of life-altering destruction. 

Flooding can also trap residents in an affordability crisis. In the aftermath of flooding, homeowners need resources to repair their homes. People of limited financial means, including seniors living on fixed incomes, cannot afford the steep costs associated with recovery or replacement housing if their homes are irrevocably damaged. Federal disaster funding only covers a small portion of recovery costs, typically less than $10,000. But many residents lack flood insurance. Only 18.5 percent of Florida homes in the mandatory evacuation zones for Hurricane Ian had flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. Obtaining affordable private insurance also remains a struggle as insurance companies withdraw from states like Louisiana and Florida due to losses or bankruptcy. With hurdles to recovery growing, residents in places like Puerto Rico and Louisiana live in fear of future storms that may push them toward homelessness amid affordable housing shortages and high rental costs.

This is the harsh reality confronting those left homeless by Hurricane Ian. Metropolitan areas in Florida like Tampa/St. Petersburg have some of the nation’s highest rates of rental inflation, making safe and affordable housing difficult to find. By 2050, the nation’s affordable housing stock exposed to sea-level rise is expected to triple, further heightening the need to build more resilient and affordable housing. 

Finally, flooding can trap communities financially in a downward spiral of disinvestment and asset devaluation. Potential homebuyers with access to property flood-risk information are more likely to make offers on properties within safer areas. As the markets price in these preferences, the value of homes in higher flood-risk areas will drop, reducing opportunities for wealth generation and property tax revenue. As the tax base declines, municipalities with high amounts of flood-exposed properties could find themselves in a cycle of population decline and an inability to fund basic public services and adaptation projects that would safeguard their community to prevent further disinvestment.

People trapped by worsening flood risk need help that the federal government should provide. That help includes better risk information for those considering moving toward risk, including mandatory disclosure of a property’s flood history. Parcel- and community-level information about future flood risk should be readily available to facilitate long-term planning. For those trapped financially in soggy homes, the federal government should scale up buyout programs for at-risk properties and fund cities that commit to welcoming climate migrants. The federal government also needs to stop spending federal taxpayer dollars to underwrite new development in flood-prone areas. It should ensure that federally-funded infrastructure accounts for the future risks of climate change and equitably protects communities. 

These and other policies could keep Americans — and their homes — safer. It’s time for federal policies to fully account for worsening flood risk. The recovery from Hurricanes Ian and Fiona provides a litmus test for our future: How will the federal government help the millions of Americans already trapped by rising floodwaters and keep others from joining them?  

Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and Environment, former special assistant to President Barack Obama, and the author of The Fight for Climate After Covid-19. Nadia A. Seeteram is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Columbia Climate School and an Aspen Institute Climate Cohort fellow.   

Tags coastal flooding Effects of climate change Flood insurance housing shortage Hurricane Ian Inflation National Flood Insurance Program Politics of the United States

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