Lessons from Hurricane Ida

We need to reduce flood vulnerability for all

Schuylkill River flooding in Norristown, PA | Photo by Michael Stokes
Schuylkill River in Conshohocken, PA | Photo by Michael Stokes

Reducing flood vulnerability will require an anti-racist approach.

Hurricane Ida is just that latest in a decades long string of catastrophic storms and floods that have sparked an outcry to reform the way we manage flooding and natural disasters as a nation. What feels different about this event, is that we are having the conversation about how to recover from a catastrophic flooding event while simultaneously having a national conversation about who is most vulnerable to floods and how to ensure equity and justice in flood management. Flood vulnerability isn’t just a matter of whether you live in the 100-year floodplain and what your community has done to improve flood resiliency. Flood vulnerability is based on both the proximity to the potential path of the flood waters as well as the various social factors that influence a person’s ability to get themselves out of harm’s way, and, perhaps most importantly, how they cope with and recover from the disaster.

Flooding in Naples, Florida following Hurricane Irma | Photo by David Goldman/AP
  • Putting in place stronger floodplain development standards that will limit unwise development in flood-prone areas
  • Adapting our land use practices so that floodplains can do what they do best — flood
  • Restore the natural capacity of land to absorb rainfall and slow runoff by restoring forests and wetlands, and increasing green infrastructure throughout our watersheds.
Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans | Photo courtesy of FEMA

Listening to, and supporting, the most vulnerable in our communities

We are only beginning to fully comprehend and consider susceptibility to flooding including the social conditions that make someone more prone to experience flooding. According to the Natural Hazards Center, “Social vulnerability influences the capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a disaster. Socially vulnerable populations are thus more likely to experience disproportionate negative impacts from disasters including emotional distress, loss of property, temporary or permanent displacement, illness, and death.” Black, Indigenous, and people of color, people of lower economic status, LGBTQIA+, people with functional and access needs, and many other groups and identities are disproportionately impacted by flooding events due to social, economic and political factors. For instance, a recent analysis by Red Fin found that formerly redlined areas (a racist 1930’s housing policy) experience 25% more flood risk than non-redlined areas.

What comes next?

Fundamental changes are needed to reduce flood vulnerability and keep communities safe from the intense flooding events to be brought by climate change. Soon there will be key opportunities for policy change like:

  • Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program to strengthen floodplain management standards, deter development in floodplains and improve information access to homeowners and renters;
  • Improving hazard mitigation planning to focus investments on community-led visions that strengthen communities by addressing related issues like affordable housing, access to healthy food, and historic preservation;
  • Revising policies that ensure key agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prioritize nature-based solutions.
Flooding in Kinston, NC | Photo courtesy of FEMA

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