Decades of environmental and housing policy failure have turned flooding–an organic fixture of our ecosystems–into financial and humanitarian disasters. For generations, discriminatory housing practices and federal lending policies relegated BIPOC renters and homeowners to floodplains. With the added stress of climate change, the earth’s natural response to fossil fuel combustion, BIPOC residents face compounding challenges and little chance to catch their breath between disasters.
Some national, state, and grassroots organizations are pushing for policy changes at the federal level, as well as real-time solutions that can be easily implemented by residents. But the agency tasked with alleviating flood risk is failing to account for how extreme weather will worsen in the coming years, and consequently neglecting the impact that extreme weather has on historical discrimination.
Part of the challenge the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faces is tied to Congress, which is tasked with updating the operating standards of the agency and allocating sufficient funds to its relief efforts. But advocates say that another, more insidious issue takes place at the local level, where state and federal laws aid developers’ interests by allowing real estate companies to build in flood-prone areas without telling potential buyers the risk to their homes.
Without fast action or substantive changes to the way the federal government funds FEMA and runs the agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, the residents least responsible for climate change (and least able to afford the burden of increased flood risk) will continue to face the greatest harms from extreme weather.
Mapping for historical discrimination and future conditions
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) functions broadly as a risk management service with insurance sales accounting for a portion of its work. When Congress created the NFIP in 1968, its parent agency, FEMA, was tasked with managing two disasters per year. Flood risk was evaluated based on a 100-year scale. According to FEMA, this means the “100 year flood” has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded during any given year. At the time, FEMA got to work mapping out which regions were more flood prone than others using the “flood of record” for each community.
Climate change upends the norms by which the federal government evaluates floods, yet the agencies tasked with protecting people’s homes and livelihoods haven’t adapted to the conditions spurred by the government’s failure to shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy.
“We’re making decisions and building hundreds and thousands of homes every year based on yesterday’s data, and maybe today’s data if the map is updated, and we’re not even thinking about tomorrow’s data,” said Chad Berginnis, the executive director for the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). According to Berginnis, in order to evaluate actual flood risk, it’s important to include “future conditions”—what weather patterns will look like down the line—in these flood maps.
Data shows that flooding is the most common and most expensive disaster. Since 1980, flooding has cost the U.S. more than $2.4 trillion. Scientists say that extreme rain events are increasing this risk. Stormwater flooding, formally called pluvial flooding, is not a risk FEMA has traditionally mapped, Berginnis noted. But pluvial flooding has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.
Then there’s the issue that FEMA has not mapped the entire country’s waterways. Berginnis said that FEMA has only evaluated a third–1.2 million miles of the country’s more than 3.5 million miles–of streams, rivers, and coastlines. According to researchers, the lack of robust mapping means the actual number of American residents at risk for serious flooding hovers around 41 million, rather than 13 million as estimated by FEMA.
It’s these maps that dictate which communities are eligible for insurance coverage and how much that insurance costs through the NFIP. A community or municipality has to be mapped by FEMA and enrolled in the NFIP to purchase flood insurance, which is mandated for at-risk homes. Despite the mandate, the rates are still too high for many low-income households, said Aaron Flores, a human-environmental geographer at Arizona State University. Flores has researched the impact of Hurricane Harvey on under-resourced BIPOC communities in Houston.
“Flood maps only reflect past flooding conditions and are a snapshot in time,” a FEMA spokesperson told Prism in an email. “They do not represent all hazards and do not predict future conditions. Congress tasked FEMA with mapping current flood risk, not future risk. That’s because insurance rates are based on current risk, not what your risk could be in the future. We are working to develop non-regulatory tools to help convey future risk, but future conditions are not currently a regulatory requirement.”
The centuries of neglect experienced by marginalized and under-resourced neighborhoods are already showing in today’s flood risk.
Majority-Black neighborhoods face a greater burden of flood risk, in part because historically redlined areas are 25% more likely to flood than non-redlined neighborhoods. In some notable cases, the only towns where formerly enslaved Black residents could find safety were in flood zones. FEMA puts the risk Black residents face of living in flood-prone areas at 10% higher. The data on flood risk also verifies the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment that the disproportionate and mounting weight of climate most impacts “socially vulnerable” or BIPOC and low-income communities.
The NFIP “should be a linchpin in our climate adaptation strategy,” said Rob Moore, a flooding and climate resilience expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “In its current form, it’s a liability.”
Living in the floodplain and left out of the NFIP
In one corner is the risk that comes from FEMA’s lack of mapping for future conditions and that insurance is predicated on inadequate maps. In another is the flood risk that’s due to climate change, compounded by development, pressurized by historical discrimination, and yet unaddressed by the federal government.
Between 2009 and 2014, Lori Burns’ basement flooded three times after major storms descended on Chicago. The city has a combined sewer system, meaning that sewage and stormwater navigate through the same underground pipes. During these storms, the pipes couldn’t handle the influx of rainwater and pushed sewage back into Burns’ home, filling the basement with toxic waste.
The first time it happened, Burns didn’t have flood insurance and the basement cost thousands of dollars to repair. After the second and third time, Burns decided to investigate longer-term solutions and joined a pilot program run by the city to install a backwater valve in the pipe under her house. Now, a small piece of plastic in the pipe acts like a trap door—once the sewage leaves, it’s not coming back in.
Burns is a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, and still remembers hanging out with friends in fully finished basements with carpeting, couches, televisions, and games. Now, she said that climate change has jeopardized her home, and a lack of substantive policy change has jeopardized her livelihood. Burns said she isn’t eligible for insurance coverage through the NFIP because she’s not in a FEMA-designated floodplain.
“We’re not even in that conversation as far as insurance and compensation,” Burns said. “We can’t even get insurance even if we wanted it.”
Her experience with flooding—and her outspokenness on the issue—has made her a trusted advocate in her community. Burns said that other homeowners call her asking for advice about signing up for private insurance, filing a claim, or what to do after flooding. The most heartbreaking calls she gets are from first-time homeowners who weren’t told of the flood risk before purchasing and later experienced a disaster. A 2019 study found that 90% of flood insurance claims are paid to BIPOC households.
Gloria Horning, a resident of Pensacola, Florida, is able to get flood insurance through the NFIP, but she still faces overwhelming challenges. Horning purchased a home in 2016, opting for a 20-year mortgage. No one told her of the potential flood risk to her home and when Hurricane Sally made landfall in 2020, her life was upended. Since then, her insurance has increased by $500, and her mortgage has doubled. At age 67 and on a fixed income, Horning decided to go back to work.
“Our government is just killing so many people you know, literally and figuratively, by not enforcing regulations, by not looking at FEMA regulations on where to build,” Horning said.
In Florida, as with most states, there’s no law mandating that home buyers be made aware of the flood risk to their homes. Knowing the risk might have changed Horning’s decision. Still, developers are allowed to build homes on filled dirt, wetlands, and waterfronts, all of which increase flood risk in the surrounding and downstream areas. Local governments in states like Florida, where there is no income tax, are incentivized to allow for more home building to increase its property tax base.
When developers create more impervious surfaces by paving over natural landscapes with concrete and buildings, water has nowhere to go but to the lowest-lying areas. For BIPOC homeowners who are often limited in terms of where they can buy, this lack of regulation on new development can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in damages and emotional distress.
Nicole Miller, a community advocate in Newark, New Jersey, said that Seton Hall University’s construction of a new basketball facility is creating flood risk for lower-laying homes where there previously was none. The homeowners impacted by the construction are BIPOC, residents Miller said were not considered before the university broke ground.
“This is unprecedented,” Miller said, explaining that most residents she’s spoken with “don’t have flood insurance because they’re not in a floodplain.”
Rainwater usually made its way out of the neighborhood by way of the Passaic River, but that may no longer be the case because of how growth in the neighborhood has led to the installation of more impervious surfaces, Miller said.
Residents in the area are organizing for accountability, and Miller wants to push back against “a sense of victimhood” that’s placed on Black and brown communities.
“Generally, the heroes in the story are also residents from that town who are also Black and brown,” Miller said.
The challenge of building differently
Ultimately FEMA depends on Congress to provide both funding and the political will to acquire the staff needed to update its maps and pass a national disclosure law around flood risk. But those who live with the risks of additional and escalating flooding can’t wait for either. Researchers say there are actions local governments can do to help absorb the impact of floods.
According to Celina Balderas Guzmán, an assistant professor in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, the key aim of readying cities for floods is to remove impervious services from the urban environment. This allows as much water as possible to infiltrate into the ground before it reaches a drainage system with limited capacities.
Cities can restore wetlands and historical floodplains, which can direct water away from urbanized areas. Governments can also incentivize and subsidize the implementation of swales or rain gardens, which can absorb an ordinary storm.
The problem, of course, is that the “ordinary storm” is now evolving with climate change. Good intentions notwithstanding, big storms like those in California’s first weeks of 2023 can’t be addressed with at-home rain gardens.
Tackling the larger issue—how cities are constructed to control water flow—will require us to rework how we build, live, and address climate change.
“Order and certainty have been two prevailing values of Western engineering … the goal has been to kind of control nature as much as possible,” Balderas Guzmán said.
Opportunities for addressing flood risk exist, but they’re not often adopted, said Abdul-Akeem Sadiq, an associate professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. FEMA has over a dozen programs that communities can adopt to lower flood insurance premiums. Sadiq said that only 5% of eligible communities are taking part in premium-reducing programs, with wealthy communities far more likely than disinvested communities to make use of these incentives.
“It’s only going to get worse,” Sadiq said. “It’s important to really ramp up these other resilience initiatives that we can implement to make sure that we try to ameliorate some of the impacts on communities.”
Some researchers and experts are calling for flood preparedness built with racial justice in mind, which requires programmatic changes to the NFIP. This includes making insurance coverage affordable for low-income residents, as is called for by the NRDC. Cities like Norfolk, Virginia now mandate building requirements for its flood-prone houses, such as building homes on stilts or having basements reinforced for water infiltration.
It’s not possible to control water, but it is possible to mitigate climate change and make sure that those who are impacted by flooding have the resources to survive, recover, and rebuild.