This week’s flooding in Vermont, which brought heavy rains to destroy far from rivers or coasts, is a testament to the dire nature of the weather: floods can happen anywhere, without warning.
And the United States, experts warn, is nowhere near ready for that threat.
The idea that wherever it rains, it can flood, is not new. But rising temperatures add to the problem: It allows the air to retain more moisture, leading to heavy and sudden rains, seemingly out of nowhere. And the consequences of this change are huge.
Rachel Cleetus, director of climate and energy policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists said: “It’s very difficult to come to terms with the current situation. “It’s everywhere, all the time.”
The federal government is already struggling to prepare Americans for flooding, providing funding for storm drains and pumps, building levees and seawalls and levees and other critical infrastructure. As the seas rise and storms intensify, the flood-prone areas of the country – places like New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Charleston or the New York City area – can use up the entire government budget to cope with the weather, without solving the problem for any of the they.
Federal flood maps, which governments use as a guide to determine where to build buildings and infrastructure, need to be updated regularly. But they often fail to take the full risk – due to lack of resources, and sometimes pushback from local authorities who do not want new limits on development.
And as the flooding in Vermont shows, the state can’t focus its resilience on predictable areas, near beaches or rivers.
In Vermont, the actual number of homes at risk of flooding that’s three times higher than what flood maps show, according to data from the First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit research group.
What is called “hidden risk” has risen dramatically in some parts of the country. In Utah, the number of areas at risk in rainfall calculations is eight times higher than what appears on federal flood maps, according to First Street. In Pennsylvania, the risk is five and a half times higher; in Montana, four times as many. Around the world, about 16 million homes are at risk, compared to 7.5 million in areas designated by the government to flood.
The result is flooding in seemingly unexpected places, like Vermont. Last summer, heavy rains closed parts of Yellowstone National Park, forcing foreigners to move. In March, storms led to protests in six states in Nevada, the driest state in the country.
The flooding in Vermont highlights the need to use more resources in planning and preparing for flood events, said Mathew Sanders, director of state resilience at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “You have to look at the water flow,” he said. “We need to rethink what the best management practices would be.”
All that water often brings disaster to places that cannot handle it.
Last year, a deluge of rain caused flooding that swept through ditches in eastern Kentucky. The force of the water toppled some houses, flooded cars and covered the remaining buildings with mud and debris. More than 35 people died.
Areas scattered across the Appalachian Mountains are prone to flooding, with water flowing from the rivers that run through the area. But the severity of the flood disrupted long-standing families. “We went from sleeping in a bed to being homeless in less than two hours,” Gary Moore, whose home outside Fleming-Neon, Ky., was destroyed, said in the days after the flood.
Flooding exacerbated by climate change was exacerbated by the effects of coal mining, as the industry that once powered the electricity declined, leaving mountains and hills flattened by their peaks. Damage to trees increases the speed and volume of stormwater runoff.
In Houston, powerful and destructive floods have been a threat for a long time, so that the worst storms have been short on record: Tropical Storm Beta (2020), Tropical Storm Imelda (2019), Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the Tax Day flood (2016).
But nearly half of the homes destroyed by floodwaters in recent years were outside flood-prone areas. An investigation by the Harris County Flood Control District found that 68 percent of the homes that flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year floodplain, due to floodwaters and waves moving through the area.
In Summerville, Ga., a city of about 4,400 on the state’s northwest coast, flooding flooded homes and businesses last year after a deluge delivered by the remnants of Tropical Storm Claudette. Lots of land in Summerville falls outside the 100 year floodplainand the destruction and its cleansing overflowed the town.
Flooding has also been a source of frustration and pain in Horry County, SC, a coastal area that includes the town of Myrtle Beach. April O’Leary, a resident who started a group called Horry County Rising, said in 2021 with emergency management officials that about half of the homes that flooded in the county were outside the flood zone.
Ms O’Leary told authorities: “There is no such thing as recovery after a flood. “You don’t get better financially, and families live in fear of floods.”
As the risk of flooding and other extreme weather events increases, the government has increased funding for climate response projects. The 2021 construction bill was passed about $50 billion for such projectsthe largest infusion in American history.
But the money is still falling short of demand. This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it received $5.6 billion in applications for its two disaster preparedness programs — approx. twice what it was.
Anna Weber, a policy researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council who is familiar with the dangers of flooding, said the government should direct more money to the most economically vulnerable people – areas that cannot afford to pay for relief services on their own.
But the amount of intervention needed is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, according to Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a New York-based nonprofit that helps people prepare for and recover from disasters. He said that cities and towns can rethink the way they build, return to nature the land that has been built on rivers, streams and wetlands, and create new parks or other places to catch rain.
In this sense, he said, adapting to climate change is an opportunity. “When,” asked Mrs. Chester, “will you think again about how you want to live?”