Flood risk up close and personal

Lisa Moore is a scientist in the Climate and Air Program in Environmental Defense’s New York office. Along with principal author Jennifer Kefer, colleague Tim Searchinger and the National Wildlife Federation’s David Conrad, she is a co-author of the new report “America’s Flood Risk is Heating Up.”

This weekend’s monster nor’easter prompted flood warnings and evacuations from the Carolinas to Maine. And what ironic timing: last week, as the storm wreaked havoc in the South, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation released a report detailing how the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control program needs to be completely re-vamped [PDF], especially in light of climate change.

While helping draft the report, I was struck by two things in particular.

The first was just how bad our country’s approach to flood control really is. I knew it was in sorry shape, but I didn’t realize how politicized the decisions are or how little the Corps considers climate change in its plans, even though global warming has already begun increasing flood risks through rising sea levels and stronger storms. As Hurricane Katrina, our report and even a federal investigation [PDF] have all shown, Corps projects — and not just those in New Orleans — aren’t up to today’s challenges, much less future conditions.

The second realization hit closer to home. The report was a stark reminder that I am a coastal resident. With so many other worries on our minds, I doubt many New Yorkers consider themselves at risk from hurricanes and floods, but we’re extremely vulnerable. After all, four of the five boroughs are low-lying islands and the area’s been hit by hurricanes before. I hadn’t realized that, for example, some of the city’s transit entry points are only 10 feet above sea level. A Category 3 hurricane could produce a 21-foot storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. Imagine the effects of a stronger storm and higher sea levels.

As it happens, New Yorkers had two reminders of flood risks this weekend. On Saturday, people gathered downtown to mark where Manhattan’s coastline could be if we do nothing to stop global warming. And on Sunday, a nor’easter blew in, dropping a record-shattering 7.5 inches of rain in the first day, flooding coastal areas, derailing travel plans and forcing evacuations.

It’s not just New Yorkers, of course. More than half of the country lives within 50 miles of a coast. And even Americans living inland face heavier rainfall with a warming climate. The fact is we’re all vulnerable to climate change — and to poor planning.

New Orleans bore the brunt of Katrina’s devastation in 2005, in part because of the Corps’ misplaced priorities. For instance, instead of focusing on restoring Louisiana’s critical wetlands, the Corps is pushing for a project that would sink $108 million into draining 75,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Missouri. Corps reform must include better prioritization and oversight to alleviate the growing flood risk we all face.

Congress can help by amending a bill it appears poised to approve, the Water Resources Development Act (“WRDA”), which provides $15 billion for water projects but doesn’t incorporate lessons we should have learned back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A new-and-improved WRDA should prioritize projects that protect the most people from flooding and require scientific review of the most expensive and controversial projects.

With flooding once again topping news coverage, now is the time for Congress and the Corps to write a new playbook for flood control. I hope they are paying attention.

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One Comment

  1. Kira
    Posted April 17, 2007 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    The entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel is only 10 feet above sea level? yikes. I wonder how many other key points in our transportation system are similarly vulnerable. Here in DC, the Rock Creek Parkway sometimes gets closed when there’s lots of rain.

One Trackback

  • […] Check out this new report by Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation on global warming and federal policies on flood prevention and this blog post by one of its authors on the recent storms in the NE. The report identifies areas in which the federal government contributes to flooding problems, and makes policy recommendations that will help stem the nation’s escalating flood damages. Some of their suggestions overlap with Corps reforms that AR endorses.  […]