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When you think of flooding, you probably think of Florida, New Orleans, or southern states. Maybe you think of Cape Code or other coastal areas.Diagram showing flood risk is composed of precipitation, underlying geology, topography, and vegetation. In general, New England is exempt from flood worries, right? Think again. It's Flood Safety Awareness Week, so let's get the facts straight.

 

The Northeast States Emergency Consortium reports that floods are the most common and most expensive New England hazard. It's time to rethink flooding.

 

Causes:

Periods of extended precipitation cause floods, but a sudden downpour or onslaught of heavy rain can cause problems too. The water isn't able to infiltrate the ground quickly enough, which can cause flash flooding. Floods can happen long after a precipitation event has occurred. They can be triggered by precipitation that fell as snow and remained on the ground until it became warm enough for that snow to melt. Dam failure and overwhelmed storm drains in urban areas are also risks. Hurricanes, nor'easters, and other precipitation events could all spell trouble for New Englanders. 

 

Factors determining risk:

Floods aren't only an issue for coastal areas. In addition to living in low-lying areas and close to rivers, steep slopes, lack of vegetation, dry and compact soil, and other features of the earth's surface all affect how risky an area is. If the ground in an area is impermeable, either because there is bedrock close below the soil or because the soil is so saturated with water from previous rainfall, and the ground can't take in any additional water, this will increase the likelihood of flooding. That water needs to go somewhere! It runs off the surface of the earth and into the surrounding areas until it either penetrates soil that is less saturated or it reaches a river or other body of water.  Compact, dry soil increases the likelihood of runoff as does urban area, where roads, sidewalks, and other impenetrable surfaces mean lots of runoff. Lack of vegetation also increases risk, as trees and other vegetation impede runoff and soak up excess water.  

 

Diagram showing heavy rainfall over urban area, deforestation due to farming, and then residential area. Arrows from urban area pointing to residential area indicating water runoff will head there.

Many people assume they're completely safe if they live inland and away from rivers, but the truth isn't this simple. In the figure on the left, the residential area in the center may appear to be a flood-free zone. It's uphill from the river and lake. There are plenty of trees and healthy vegetation in-between the river and the homes if the river does overflow. It looks like a safe and dry place to live, but this isn't always true. If a heavy storm overwhelms the nearby city, which is common in urban areas, the water has to go somewhere. There is little vegetation between the city and the town due to the farmland. The water table is quite high, meaning the ground cannot store a lot of water because it is already saturated. These homes may appear safe at first, but when you consider more factors and scenarios, the risk emerges.

 

Climate change:

When you throw climate change into the mix, unfortunately the outlook only worsens. It's not just your imagination: extreme weather events, including flooding, are becoming more and more common with the number of storms doubling since 1980 (see here). The US isn't exactly paving the way when it comes to climate resilience either. Notre Dame's Global Adaptation Initiative Country Index shows the US hasn't made significant improvements in adapting to climate change in four years. While we're getting better at weather forecasting, the forecasts may not be want we want to hear. Despite climate change, we will continue to experience large nor'easters. Scientists also predict we will see a greater number of storm events clustered together (see here). In addition to bad news in terms of weather, soil is predicted to become less porous and able to hold water, increasing the risk for flash flooding (see here). 

 

Most of us are foolish:

It's easy and common to ignore flooding. Coastal flooding gets all of the attention, but inland rivers flood and cause damage too. A study completed in 2018 found that 41 million Americans are at risk from river flooding, as opposed to 13 million FEMA maps predicted (see here). You wouldn't be alone if you thought your homeowner's policy will keep you safe from these risks, but you'd be wrong. Floods are not covered by homeowner's or renter's insurance.  It's not only people living in high-risk areas who should consider flood insurance either. FEMA reports that 25% of all claims come from low and moderate-risk areas. What's the take home message from all of this? Don't make the mistake of ignoring flood risk.

 

The bottom line is that floods are very much underestimated, risk is dependent on more than just proximity to coastal areas, and New Englanders would benefit from exploring their flood risk and considering protecting themselves.

 

It's Flood Safety Awareness Week, so let's all be more aware. To learn more about flood insurance, see here. If you'd like a quote (after reading all of that, how could you not?), we are more than happy to shop around for you. Fill in your information online here. There is no obligation and you won't be added to any mailing list!

Posted 6:00 PM

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