The United States has over 3.5 million miles of shoreline bordering oceans, lakes, and rivers. Coastal counties are home to more than 123 million people, about 39 percent of the nation’s population. These areas, often heavily populated and highly developed, are at risk from weather-related catastrophes such as floods and hurricanes, which can cause significant physical and economic damage and threaten human lives and ecosystems. From 1980 to 2013, flooding caused more than $260 billion in damage in the U.S., making it the costliest and fastest-growing disaster threat in the nation.
Current U.S. policy, however, is not adequate to meaningfully reduce the effect of these events on homes, businesses, communities, infrastructure, natural habitats, and the economy. To address these shortcomings, Pew’s initiative on creating flood-prepared communities works on the following policy areas:
Federal flood insurance. Created in 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides federally backed coverage for homeowners and small businesses in more than 22,000 communities across the country. The program was established to offset the lack of private sector flood insurance and to help reduce federal spending on disaster response and rebuilding. Today NFIP is nearly $24 billion in debt and faces an unsustainable future. To effectively address flooding nationwide, NFIP must ensure that rates better reflect actual risk, reduce impacts on frequently affected areas, and have sufficient financial reserves to respond to catastrophic events.
Disaster mitigation. The federal government offers aid to states, localities, and individuals when disasters overwhelm local capacity. The number of disaster declarations has risen from an average of 46 a year in the 1990s to 50 in the 2000s to 67 from 2010 to 2014, and associated costs have grown as a result. The federal government should increase investments in hazard planning and mitigation to help states and municipalities prepare for and avoid the worst impacts of extreme weather events and to stem the rising costs of flood disasters.
Infrastructure. The essential facilities and services that communities rely on include roadways, electrical power, water utilities, and hospitals. When flooding damages infrastructure, the impact on residents and businesses can be devastating and the costs of repair can be significant. Policies that guarantee federal investment in construction or reconstruction must consider current and future flood risks to break the cycle of loss and repair in flood-prone areas.
Nature-based solutions. Healthy coastal and riverine areas provide multiple benefits to society and the economy, including fish and wildlife habitats, floodwater storage, storm protection, and recreational and tourism opportunities. Traditional approaches to shoreline management and flood protection have focused on infrastructure, such as seawalls and bulkheads, but these efforts are often ineffective and may even diminish nature’s ability to protect communities. Policies should account for the role of natural defenses in flood planning and preparedness and should increase federal funding for effective new approaches to protect property and the environment.
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