These 5 Flood Resilience and Adaptation Challenges Offer Opportunities for States

New research on planning shows need for better coordination with federal government and communities

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These 5 Flood Resilience and Adaptation Challenges Offer Opportunities for States
A father and daughter standing in a flooded street.
Megan Price, right, helps her father, volunteer firefighter Pat Price, prepare to take a rescue boat to secure a propane tank floating in flood waters in Seven Springs, North Carolina on Sept. 21, 2021, after Hurricane Florence caused the Neuse River to rise out of its banks. New research looks at state flood resilience planning throughout the U.S., with a particular emphasis on five states, including North Carolina.
Michael S. Williamson The Washington Post via Getty Images

Climate resilience and adaptation planning at the state level, while in some cases ambitious, often falls short in critical areas, such as sufficiently accounting for flooding and social vulnerability. That’s a key takeaway from new research, including a survey of 148 plans in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia; the survey was done by Urban Institute researchers and commissioned by the State Resilience Partnership, a network of nongovernmental and academic institutions convened by the American Flood Coalition and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In addition to the survey, the researchers conducted a deep dive analysis in five states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Washington.

Here are five of the report’s most interesting findings:

  1. Flooding is often only a small component of most plans. Despite the frequency and high cost of flooding in the United States, few states have planned for flooding in a deliberate, strategic manner. Most plans that cover flooding—including State Hazard Mitigation Plans and climate resilience plans—address a variety of shocks and stressors across multiple hazards. Meanwhile, many states develop water plans, but these primarily address water resource and quality issues.
  2. Most state plans do not meaningfully incorporate social vulnerability, and few include strategies to assist low-capacity communities. Only 24 of 148 plans included extensive discussion of social vulnerability that clearly connected geographic risk to specific vulnerable populations. Moreover, few plans included mechanisms to build, track, or monitor local capacity in geographically defined areas that have limited access to government resources, funding, or technical skills.
  3. State plans are often developed under short time frames, and many omit projections of future risk. More than half of the plans surveyed were developed in one year or less, leaving minimal time for intensive scientific modeling or robust public engagement. In addition, 32% percent of plans surveyed relied exclusively on historical climate and disaster data. In a time of changing climate patterns, historical data is less likely to predict future risk.
  4. Federal standards for state hazard mitigation planning may not account for specific state needs. In many cases, states rely on State Hazard Mitigation Plans—approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—to assess and mitigate flood risk; however, these plans often serve only as a summary of a state’s activities, rather than as a strategic planning document.
  5. Resilience planning efforts are often reactive, instead of proactive. Respondents from Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina all cited major flood events as catalysts to revamp their approaches to planning. While acting in response to a disaster is understandable, preparing in advance can save lives, money, and provide better grounding for necessary and sustained investments in mitigation. Now, efforts in Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina incorporate current and future flood risk and exceed State Hazard Mitigation Plan requirements—actions to be applauded—but are measures that could have been initiated before there was a disaster.

With an unprecedented amount of money set aside for resilient infrastructure in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, states throughout the U.S. have a unique opportunity to develop innovative resilience and adaptation plans—and see those plans translated to real action. To learn more about steps that federal, state, and local governments can take to improve their resilience and adaptation plans, read more about the new research findings here or at the State Resilience Partnership website.

Mathew Sanders manages state planning for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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