Millions more homes risk a flood, might need insurance

A new, nationwide flood modeling tool released Monday paints a picture of the U.S. as a country woefully underprepared for damaging floods, now and in the future.

The federal government’s best efforts to predict where flooding will strike have underestimated the risk to nearly 6 million homes and commercial properties primarily in the nation’s interior, leaving them unprepared for potential devastation, the analysis shows.

Meanwhile, the model prepares residents of coastal states and cities for risks to come as their communities head toward a future of more intense storms and rising seas.

Experts say the analysis is the latest evidence of a decades-long bungling of flood planning and policy at multiple levels of government across the country. And it presents difficult new questions about who will pay billions of dollars to save communities from going underwater: homeowners, towns and cities, or the U.S. taxpayer?

“Who is going to pay and how we are going to pay, is the ultimate question,” said A.R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

A lone man wades through the floodwaters in New Orleans north of downtown six days after Hurricane Katrina passed through the area.

A lone man wades through the floodwaters in New Orleans north of downtown six days after Hurricane Katrina passed through the area.
Michael Madrid, USA TODAY

The analysis was conducted by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization that paired dozens of scientists and engineers with researchers from academic institutions including the University of California-Berkeley, George Mason University and Rutgers University. The team combined several existing models of sea level rise, riverine flooding and simulations of extreme weather events into a single, nationwide flood assessment model that examined risk in all states except Alaska and Hawaii.

While insurance and investment companies, such as Blackrock, have long used their own private models to make decisions, First Street will allow users of its Flood Factor site to view flood risks to individual properties and created a Flood Lab that allows academic researchers to further access data for research.

The group’s modeling is “exactly what we need to be doing,” said Kerry Emmanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT who serves on First Street’s advisory board.

“Until recently we didn’t have people putting all these little pieces together,” he said. “We had really good people working on that little piece of the problem and good people working on another little corner.”

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