Headlines in the last several years have been dominated by a spate of natural disasters, and unfortunately, no state has been immune. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Environmental Information, large-scale disasters cost the country $91 billion in 2018.
Data compiled by The Associated Press shows that 24 states have suffered about $1.2 billion in damages this year to roads, bridges, buildings, utilities and other public infrastructure from floods, storms and tornadoes.
Severe weather in the United States varies by region and season, but flooding affects nearly every state. Flood data, in fact, shows that inland states, near rivers, experience flooding more frequently than coastal states. Whether it’s the catastrophic but occasional flooding caused by hurricanes, or the frequent but less severe inundation of low-lying areas caused by inland rainstorms, both threaten millions of people and businesses.
For decades, the framework for dealing with calamities has centered on response and recovery, not on mitigation or risk reduction. As disaster recovery costs have risen for all levels of government, there has been a shift toward preventing damage rather than just repairing it. Many of these mitigation strategies require investing in strengthening infrastructure. In 2018, the National Institute of Building Sciences released a finding that for every $1 invested in disaster mitigation, future costs associated with loss are reduced by $6.
Traditionally, “infrastructure” has conjured up visions of concrete and steel, but when it comes to flooding, a combination of “gray” infrastructure (engineered solutions using concrete, steel and other materials) and “green” infrastructure (living shorelines, open space and wetlands restoration) can be the best antidote to disaster.
So far this year, lawmakers in at least 31 states have introduced legislation related to flood control. In Texas, which is still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the Legislature passed seven bills to better prepare the state for future floods. Legislators took the unprecedented step of amending their state constitution to create a flood infrastructure fund to help pay for flood drainage, mitigation and control projects. One bill called for the “construction and implementation of nonstructural projects, including projects that use nature-based features, to protect, mitigate or reduce flood risk.” These investments will be made alongside traditional “gray” solutions such as stormwater drainage systems, levees and retention basins.
In response to record-setting floods in 2008, the Iowa General Assembly established a flood center at the University of Iowa College of Engineering. It works closely with the state Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies. Over the last decade, it has become a leader in developing flood-resilient infrastructure projects. Legislators also created a competitive grant program to support infrastructure projects such as rebuilding, reconstructing and replacing buildings after disasters, and controlling, protecting against and preventing flooding.
A number of states, including Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia, which have suffered devastating floods in the last few years, are turning to science for help. They’re using research, data and new technologies such as LiDAR, a surveying tool that uses laser light to measure distances, to help guide infrastructure investments. LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, can generate computer models that simulate floods, showing the most vulnerable areas.
Paying for these infrastructure investments has been among states’ biggest obstacles. Until recently, federal funds mostly have targeted disaster response and recovery, leaving states with limited resources to make what are often costly investments.
Revolving loans, which have been used to fund water projects, have been gaining traction at the state and federal levels to fund flood-mitigation efforts. As recipients repay the low-interest loans, funding becomes available for other borrowers.
The federal Disaster Recovery Reform Act, which Congress passed in October 2018, is considered the most comprehensive disaster reform legislation since Hurricane Katrina. The new law created a federal funding stream known as BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) by setting aside up to 6% of estimated disaster expenses. The funds will be available to state, local, tribal and territorial entities on a competitive basis for use on mitigation and resilience projects before disaster strikes.
BRIC is expected to provide a more reliable stream of funding, allowing states to more consistently plan and execute mitigation programs. Application guidance will become available once FEMA’s rulemaking and public comment period has been completed.
In the meantime, some states are finding ways to pay for their own improvements. Virginia lawmakers, for example, enacted legislation this year that provides loans to strengthen shorelines and improve the management of stormwater. The law gives preference to natural or nature-based solutions and living shorelines, which combat soil erosion with organic materials like sand, wetland plants, oyster reefs, submerged aquatic vegetation, stones and coir fiber.
Indiana has a similar loan program, funded through legislative appropriations, to help construct and widen stream channels, and to build and repair dikes and levees, among other projects.
As states prepare for what many consider to be the new normal when it comes to flooding and other natural disasters, there is an increased willingness among federal, state and local governments to invest in building more resilient communities, ones that can better withstand disasters and reduce or eliminate the associated economic, social and environmental impacts.
Kim Tyrrell is director of NCSL’s Environment Program. Lucia Bragg, a policy specialist in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office, contributed to this story.