Water, Floods & Sea Level Rise

Water is becoming a real issue in this country. Either we have too much, or we have too little depending on where you are. And for some reason, we keep building houses in flood zones. Why don’t we do it today? We learn more about water floods and sea levels.


A.R. Siders – Assistant Professor, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware

Show Links:

This is Today




An overview paper of managed retreat in the US

A map of which states disclose flood risk ( by NRDC & Columbia Center for Climate Change Law):https://www.nrdc.org/flood-disclosure-map

Automated Transcript:

[00:00:00] Russ: Water is becoming a real issue in this country. Either we have too much, or we have too little depending on where you are. And for some reason, we keep building houses in flood zones. Why don’t we do it today? We learn more about water floods and sea levels.

Thanks for listening and thanks for subscribing to learning more where each week we bring you any story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life I’m Russ, and this week. Okay, well, we’re continuing a series here in case you haven’t noticed, we’re talking about climate change. Okay. This one is really interesting to me because there are such extremes here in the United States.

I’m in California and each night when we run the dishwasher, we have to see, should we run it? Do we have enough in there? Maybe we should wait a couple of days. We just don’t have the water here in the state. So it’s a huge problem. On that side of it. And then you turn on the news and you look in various other states and they’re literally underwater.

We’ve got a huge problem here and we’ve got to solve it. We’ve got to figure it out. So I am joined today by, A.R. Siders an assistant professor from the disaster research center at the University of Delaware. Thank you. Joining me

[00:01:31] AR Siders: today. Yeah. Thanks for having me. Uh, as you’re talking about the water, the drought, and the flood.

I’m reminded. I, I started working on climate change issues when I was working for the US Navy at the time, my boss Admiral Titley used to say that the problem of climate change is all about the water. It’s too much, or it’s too little it’s in the wrong place or at the wrong time. And so I think about that a lot.

When it’s climate change, it’s drought or flood, where’s the water coming from? When is it coming? Is it snowpack? Is it melt? What’s happening with it, but yeah, water. Is that thebasis of all of this?

[00:02:00] Russ: Totally. And you summed up the whole issue right there. I mean, there’s too much or too little.

I have this dream of like, why don’t we just put pipes somewhere and pipe it to California? We can use it. We don’t

[00:02:16] AR Siders: have any, no, and it’s true. Right. But then, so I grew up in Minnesota on lake superior. And so when you talk about pipes, you know, at one point there was, I don’t know if it was an urban legend or a real plan, but at one point there was talk about putting a pipe out of lake superior, taking water from the great lakes up to California, or, you know, after the west and the dry.

And of course, then everyone who loves the great lakes and their ecosystem sort of, oh no, we’re going to destroy these ecosystems. Cause it sounds so simple to move it around, but actually it becomes really complicated in terms of how you, you spread out those,

[00:02:48] Russ: those effects.

Okay. So let’s talk through it first. Okay. We’ve got the drought issues, but right now, you know, and you don’t know when this is going to happen, it can happen at any point. There’s coastal flooding and there’s sea-level rise, and they’re still. Building houses in these areas.

[00:03:12] AR Siders: So sea-level rise, this is one of the climate change consequences that we talk about the most.

I think it’s because it’s one of the most obvious and it’s the one you sort of see happening. Right? You can watch the tide gauges go up, you can see how that’s, uh, coming and it sort of. It’s still uncertain, but in some ways, it’s more predictable than saying how climate change will affect hurricanes or will it affect hurricanes.

Right. There’s a lot more uncertainty about that than sea-level rise. Uh, and then, yeah, you, you said it we’re building in the. Flood-prone areas we’re actually building faster in the United States, in flood-prone areas than we are outside of cleverly. Uh, in Delaware, for example, we’re building two and a half times faster in some places inside, uh, inside flood zones that are, have a 10% chance of flooding every year.

So. It sounds crazy, but there’s such a demand to put housing there. And so you have this mix of demand to put more housing, people wanting those sort of short-term economic benefits. They want to be near the coast. And then the long-term consequences of what happens when then the sea level rises when the beach erodes, when these floods happen and all of that is put at risk, uh, and it creates this, this huge problem, which from an academic standpoint is fascinating to study and try to dig into.

All of the

[00:04:25] Russ: complications. Should we be really like living next to the coast and doing this? Making mistake after mistake and building these houses.

[00:04:33] AR Siders: The real core of the question, right, is what is the value? Why do some people feel the need to live there? Whereas other people feel like they could live nearby and visit the coast.

Uh, and I think different states in different communities have really different answers to that. Thinking about this. Like living on the coast because they like being near the beach. It’s forms part of their identity. It has all these wonderful amenities. Um, but yeah, there is this fundamental question of, is that a place where people should live?

Like when you go back in history, you know, a hundred years ago or 200 years ago, a lot of people didn’t build next to the coast that wasn’t desirable housing. Risk Chrome, because they knew that if a flood happened or a hurricane happened, their house would be damaged. And it’s more recently as we’ve built more levies and we’ve done engineering that people start thinking, oh, maybe that’s okay.

Maybe we can engineer our way out of this problem. And so we build more and more. And now I think we’re getting, we’re swinging back on that pendulum to the point where maybe we actually can’t engineer our way out of this entire problem. Right. I mean, we can limit that problem, but in some places. That doesn’t work.

And so we’re trying to find other solutions. And I think that’s what we’re starting to talk about. One of the things I study is managed to treat as people who actually relocate away from these risk-prone areas because they started to realize that maybe living there. It isn’t the safest idea or the best idea economically.

[00:05:54] Russ: I saw some of that in your research. Okay. Let’s get into that a little bit. The managed retreat. I thought these were some great ideas, but share that a

[00:06:04] AR Siders: little bit with us. So when we think about adaptation to risks in general, I think about climate change adaptation, we talk about categories. Options.

So you can sort of resist. And we talked about resist. Usually. We mean, say building a flood wall, you prevent the water from reaching your house. You can accommodate the water. So maybe you elevate your home. The water comes and it goes, but you’re high and dry. So there’s less damage being done. You can retreat.

Move your house away from the floodwater. So the water comes and goes and you’re not there. So it doesn’t matter. Or you can avoid, which is don’t build there in the first place. Uh, and we’re not doing a great job at avoiding, but you know, now that we had these buildings there, like once you’ve put a home in the flood, plain, Then you’re kind of looking at it thinking, well, what do we do now?

Right. And those are the big categories of options. There are tons of options within each of those categories, but those are the big options. And historically the US like in the last century, we’ve mostly been doing resistance and accommodation. So we’ve been elevating homes, building levees, building floodwalls, trying to shore up the shore and keep people in their homes.

And more recently, just in the last few decades, we started to see more people, more communities thinking about. Maybe some of these homes need to move. Maybe some of these homeowners want to move, right? They’re sick of living behind a floodwall or they’re sick of being flooded all the time, but it’s a really challenging strategy, right?

People live where they live for a lot of good reasons and some of them are really loath to leave

[00:07:24] Russ: there. What about like a hybrid solution where you’ve got multiple different ways of, uh, or, or you’re taking those various managed retreat solutions and putting them all together?

[00:07:37] AR Siders: I think this is what we’re going to have to see in the future because we tend to talk about these as though they’re alternatives.

Like either, we’re going to build a floodwall or we’re going to do manage a retreat, or we’re going to elevate. And one of the reasons they can feel like alternatives is different federal agencies fund different strategies. So the US Army Corps of Engineers mostly funds building seawalls. Whereas FEMA mostly.

Uh, home elevation and property buyouts and HUD helps with property buyouts. So you kind of have to do different agencies and it could feel like you have to do one or the other. But the best solutions are probably going to involve all of the above. Right? When we think about Miami and how it’s going to deal with sea-level rise, it’s probably going to have some seawalls, some home elevations, some neighborhoods relocating, and some other strategies, dune renourishment and wetland restoration, all types of things.

Uh, you know, you think about the categories, like the ingredients in a recipe, and you can create different recipes depending on how you mix them and how much you have of each different option. We don’t want to have one thing. That’s all retreat or one place. That’s all resistance. You’re probably going to have a mix of the above.

And the tricky bit is figuring out how much of each one makes sense in a given

[00:08:46] Russ: that’s kind of the happy medium in all of this, right? Like you’re getting the best of both worlds. You know, because you’re doing this. Okay. Well, you think about the seawalls, like, and you know, we have, uh, in the city I live in, we do have, there’s a small seawall.

Uh, that’s protecting some of these houses that they built below flood level, which is why did they do that? I don’t know, but they did. So they have the sea wall. And, you know, they’ve got like some areas where you can walk on the seawall and all of that, but really those houses, they have zero views of the water now because of the seawall.

So it’s like, okay, you’re missing out on that. So perhaps if there was a hybrid solution, you can have the seawalls a little bit lower. The house is a little more elevated and maybe it is making things a little bit

[00:09:37] AR Siders: better. We, we are going to see a lot of hybrids and, you know, you raise an interesting point, which is that.

All of these strategies have trade-offs they all have pros and cons, right? You’re behind a levee. Great. Your home is safer. The water can’t get in, at least as long as the Levy’s maintained. And if it’s well, it’s a good levy. Uh, but yeah, you lose your view of the ocean. And I think this is the part where we start having to have some really tough conversations as communities to think about what matters most to you.

Do you care most about living here? You know, in this exact neighborhood, in this exact house, do you care most about having a view of the ocean? Do you care most about having access to the beach? Because building that levy might destroy access to the beach. If the water rises up to the point where it meets the levy and there’s no sand on the beachside.

So, you know, we have to start thinking about which of these things is our priority, and those are really hard conversations. And that’s an answer where there isn’t a writer. Engineering answer, right? That’s not something you can plug into a mathematical formula and say, this is right or wrong. That’s our value.

Yeah. That’s our personal,

[00:10:38] Russ: emotional attachment to the area.

[00:10:41] AR Siders: What are your emotions about it? And people have really strong emotions, really strong opinions about their communities. And so, so these conversations, aren’t going to be scientific engineering. Here’s the right answer. They’re going to have to be these harder, more emotional conversations about what we want the community to look like in the future.

Right. That’s really challenging because those emotions are hard. So it’s really difficult conversations, uh, you know, examples of communities that start fighting over this and, and it can really, really cause a lot heartache at the same time. Uh, mostly because climate change can be so depressing to talk about.

I try to find the optimism and I think this is an area where you can be optimistic like while we’re thinking about what really matters to us, let’s talk about how we could do better at emphasizing whatever. Yeah. That we care about most

[00:11:31] Russ: well, and that’s going to be so different per person, like in, in one community, you could have people wanting different things in one city.

You’re definitely gonna have that. How do we keep this equitable? How do we keep this fair? When making these types


[00:11:45] AR Siders: decisions? The big question that comes up with this sort of equity and fairness is. Whose homes are going to be protected behind a flood wall and whose homes are going to be relocated.

And what you worry about, what you don’t want to see is you don’t want to see all the rich homes, the wealthy homes being protected and the low-income neighborhoods being relocated and forced out. Right? You want to make sure that this is being done in a way that’s fair to everyone and is, and doesn’t just give the amenities of being on the coast to wealthy homeowners.

And that’s a problem. That seems to be what we’re seeing right now is that more wealthy homeowners are getting protected with, by floodwalls, uh, because they can pay for them on their own or because the local government wants to protect those property taxes. Aright and lower-income neighborhoods maybe are getting relocated more often because it doesn’t, it’s not cost-effective to them.

A flood wall in front of a lower income

[00:12:37] Russ: neighborhood right now. Okay. So I didn’t write this down, but you mentioned earlier some of the, um, government organizations that are managing this there, the retreat method is different per the organization. Is that just, we’re seeing certain communities move because that’s the organization or the government organization that’s going in.

Is that why that changes? Well, so

[00:12:58] AR Siders: this, that’s actually a really interesting question and it’s one I want to learn more about. Uh, so that’s actually one of the research questions I’m hoping to find out more about. Uh, I, I wonder if that’s happening, right. A disaster occurs. And if the US Army Corps is the first person to show up and they say, Hey, we have money for a flood wall.

And if FEMA shows up first and says, Hey, we have money for flood out for home elevations, you elevate homes. Right. And I don’t know how much the community is really sitting down and say, Is a flood wall best or is the elevation

[00:13:25] Russ: best. Yeah. And that’s perhaps the only advice that they’re getting and, you know, when, when the only, uh, tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right.

That, that old saying everything was

[00:13:34] AR Siders: like, yeah, well, and this is an area where I think it’s one of the reasons, um, that historically we’ve built so many levees and so many flood walls, right. It’s like, uh, they worked for a while. They worked in certain circumstances. Using that hammer. And so everything looks like a build a flood wall solution.

Right? Right. And now we’re starting to see that, Hey, maybe putting levies all along the Mississippi actually has caused some real problems because of the way it’s changed sediment and change flooding. And we’re not maintaining those levies. Right. Those are expensive things to maintain. So when they’re not maintained, Think they’re safe, but they’re actually not safe.

And when those levies are over-talked or they break anyway. Yeah. It’s, there’s a problem with relying on just one strategy is that you can tend to overuse it in scenarios where maybe it wasn’t the right answer, just because it worked somewhere else doesn’t mean it’s going to work. All right.

[00:14:23] Russ: So we got to get into some of the money spent by the government and some of the ways that the government is handling this, we’ll get into that.

We’ll take a short break here. When we come back, we’ll continue the conversation.

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[00:15:23] AR Siders: today.

[00:15:26] Russ: Thanks for listening and subscribing to learning more we’re underwater.

In this episode, we’re talking water, we’re talking ways to adapt to our changing climate. It’s a frustrating and interesting topic, and we’re also trying to put a positive spin on it. I’m talking with AR Siders and assistant professor. I want to talk a little about the money behind all of this and specifically the government.

Yeah. That was spent on this billion of dollars spent on cleaning up after a disaster. But I don’t really hear about the money going in to help us upfront to prevent that disaster. It almost feels like the government is like, let’s have the insurance companies pay for this, or let’s have personal people pay for this instead of us.

Yeah. Is that happening or what’s going on here?

[00:16:15] AR Siders: All right. All right. There are these two pieces, right? So the first bit is like the mitigation. So reducing the risk, preventing the disaster from happening versus paying for it afterward. And you’re spot on that. Historically, the US has done so much more on post-disaster recovery.

We spend hundreds of billions of dollars post-disaster recovery, right. And we spend very little pre-disaster. Mitigation, uh, there’s an effort to change this. Uh, FEMA now has a program called brick building resilient infrastructure and communities, and it’s supposed to be aimed explicitly at trying to reduce risk.

It’s had other programs in the past. FEMA has, but this is supposed to be a bigger program with more emphasis on how do we reduce risk? One of the real challenges. Is the federal government doesn’t have the authority to stop people from building in floodplains or fire-prone areas? That’s a local guy. And the local government doesn’t have an incentive to do it, right?

So if a local government gets more money, the more houses they build, cause they get property tax revenue, they get the population boosts, et cetera. So there’s some great work by Linda Shai showing that local governments actually have a financial incentive to build more homes. Even if they know that they’re in a hazard prone.

And the federal government doesn’t have any authority to prevent that is then left holding the bill when those homes are flooded or burned down or destroyed in a disaster. So there’s this real mix between who’s paying for it. And who has the authority to reduce the risk in the first place? It’s a FEMA stuck in the middle, trying to use this money to try to incentivize local governments to take action.

That’s hard cause they’re fighting against all of these, these incentives. And then the other thing you mentioned with the insurance companies is like that’s a whole, uh, that’s a whole kind of worms on its own. Um, so the real question was insurance. What do you do when the insurance companies won’t insure a property when it’s too risky?

So with flood-prone properties back in the sixties, a bunch of flood insurance companies said it is too risky. You are building homes in areas that are so risky that we will not insure them. So the federal government created the national flood insurance program, and we’re still running it today. And so the federal government actually provides flood insurance for homes that are located in the flood plain.

And I love the quote. One guy writes about this. He says it’s like a car insurance company that only provides policies to drunk 16-year-old boys. That’s it? That’s the only, like the only people you give this to are people who, you know, will have access, right? Because we’re all living in flood insurance policies to people we know we’d be flooded.

And so as a result, this program is bankrupt. Like it, you know, it’s, it’s overdrawn. Yeah, it doesn’t get enough money. So there are all kinds of efforts trying to fix it. And it’s a huge problem. And now we’re seeing the problem happen with wildfire because now wildlife fire insurance companies are saying, Hey, these wildfires are so big.

We don’t want to insure these homes anymore. And states like California are saying, whoa, if you don’t insure these homes, what’s going to happen to the homeowners when that home burns down. And so I think there is this idea. Do you have, like, you want the insurance companies to do more and they’re trying to do more because they are?

Hundreds of billions of dollars. And look at reinsurance companies who insure the insurance companies were paying all this it’s hugely expensive to them and they want more action taken. But again, you have to create an incentive for the local government to actually step in and say, no, you shouldn’t build there in the first place.

And that’s really hard to convince a local government to do you have to stand up to a developer to stand up for a homeowner and say, no, you can’t build, or you can’t rebuild. Right?

[00:19:43] Russ: Yeah. Well, you know, you mentioned California. I mean, one of them, the issues that we have in California is the the state is essentially forcing more houses to be built because they want lower-income houses, which makes sense.

There’s also this factor. Where, where are those being built? Are they being built in areas that are

[00:20:05] AR Siders: disaster-prone? It’s a huge, huge problem. Uh, I mean our most work, mostly in flood, but nationally government-sponsored housing. So government-subsidized, affordable housing. Yeah. Some estimates are 10% of that is inside the flood plain.

Wow. So we’re building affordable housing for people who need government-subsidized housing, and we’re putting it in areas where these people are going to experience floods. And it’s a real challenge everywhere, right? The housing crisis, but it does suggest that we have to come up. Some new strategies.

And this is, you know, trying to be optimistic again like this is where I try to see the optimism that I think there are a lot of creative strategies for how we can build affordable housing, how we can build more densely in the cities we have. If we choose to go that route, right. It’s about, are we really ready to prioritize, building safe, affordable housing, right.

And I’m not sure that that’s really been a priority. The wage. And if it were, we could find strategies to do that.

[00:20:56] Russ: Okay. I said we tried to take it on a, on a bit of a problem. No, it’s hard

[00:21:02] AR Siders: sometimes I know.

[00:21:03] Russ: Yeah. Let’s talk about some of the spendings on infrastructure bills. Uh, there’s one that could happen right now.

Let’s talk about that. If you were in charge, what would you put inside of an infrastructure bill?

[00:21:16] AR Siders: I think one of the things is long-term maintenance for our folks. Management infrastructure. Uh, so the United States has hundreds of miles and more than that, of levees and floodwalls all across the United States, uh, and the American society of civil engineers, it goes in and grades, this infrastructure, right?

A through F and only 8%. Is considered an acceptable condition. Wow. So that means 92% of the floodwalls that people are living behind are not considered to be an acceptable condition. They need to be updated and they estimate that it would cost a hundred billion dollars just to repair them, not to put them up to climate change levels, not to increase them, not to do any future maintenance, just to get them all to an acceptable level.

And then you’re talking $15 billion a year after that every year, just to maintain them. The infrastructure bills that come in and they give a short, uh, influx of money are great. But you have to wonder about where is that 15 billion every year going to come from, not from the next five years, the next 10 years of the bill, but for the next hundred years.

Yeah. Right. And that’s, that’s a really big question. And when we’re thinking about climate change adaptation, we’re thinking. We have to be thinking in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Uh, I mean, I mean the price tag is going to be enormous, whether we do retreat or we built floodwalls or we elevate homes, it’s going to be gigantic.

And it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually started planning for that in a, I don’t know, in a realistic way. Well, so when you see

[00:22:45] Russ: the price tag of $15 billion a year, I would think we probably spend more than that on like, you know, fixing the issues after they’ve happened. Right. Well, this

[00:22:56] AR Siders: goes back to that push of where do you spend your money?

Right? Most of the calculations that come out estimate somewhere between. Well, I’ve seen as much as for every dollar you spend on flood mitigation. So building flood walls, relocating homes, elevating them, you save $4 down the road. Uh, and some people will go as high as $8 saved. So if you think about that, that’s a 400%, you know, the 800% investment.

That’s a, that’s a really solid investment. But convincing, especially local governments or especially spending say small towns who maybe are struggling with their budgets anyway, to try to combat that cash upfront is really hard. Right. They know they might save money down the line, but, but coming up with that tax, the upfront capital investment, I think is part of the trick.

So how do we do that? Well,

[00:23:46] Russ: it just feels like, I mean, you know, every year. Every podcast. I talk about either, you know, about city planning or, you know, future-proofing or future planning. Like we’re, we’ve always been, um, very much about today and not about tomorrow. So it goes along with that theme, unfortunately, and there’s very little that we can do aside.

You know, vote, I guess, as far as the federal government

[00:24:11] AR Siders: level is really important though. And actually, I’ve become convinced that, uh, anyone listening to this podcast, like one of the real challenges is get involved in your local planning board because your local planning board is the person who’s deciding whether affordable housing is built, whether they invest in repairing flood infrastructure and whether or not they build new homes in the flood plain.

And so few people actually participate. In local planning boards that you can have a real difference if you show up and make your voice.

[00:24:41] Russ: Yeah. Well, that’s what I was saying on the federal level. You can’t do much, but on the local level, yeah. You can jump in and actually

[00:24:47] AR Siders: make a different levels where we need, we need action at the local level right now.

That’s where we need people to speak out. Right.

[00:24:52] Russ: So I, uh, one of my first jobs is a cameraman at a city council meeting. Wow, that sounds like a tough, uh, there were nights, I felt like they would never end, but the thing was, you know, you got the same few people going in there over and over and over again, to try to make this point.

And I just always thought as I was sitting there, um, aside from how do I stay awake tonight? Um, but I always thought like if more people came in here and actually made a point about something. I think more things would get done. Yeah. Okay. So outside of the government, let’s talk about just us personally, what can we do to make a difference?

[00:25:38] AR Siders: Well, okay. So usually my answer to that is to go to the planning boards, right. Is engaged with the local government because I think it. The United States has had such a tradition of wanting local governments, like towns and cities to have authority. But that really depends on the people who are participating, but so really engaging, I think is incredibly important.

The other thing I’ll note is to educate yourself because, so for example, when you purchase a new home, right? If you’re, if you’re buying or if you’re renting some stuff, You’re the seller is required to tell you that your home is in the floodplain and that you are at risk and that you’ll have to buy flood insurance and so forth.

But in some states you’re not, there’s no requirement like Florida, Massachusetts. There is no requirement for the home seller to tell you that the home has a history of flooding, that it is in the flood, plain, that you will be required to purchase flood insurance. So. Uh, it really puts the onus on the buyer to educate yourself about flood risk.

And I say this because I really worry about you reading these news stories about people whose homes flooded and they say, wow, I wish I’d known that it flooded before I bought it before I made this huge financial decision and put my family at risk, et cetera. And we need to fix the systems we need to.

Create systems that will give people that information. But in the meantime, you can really help by educating yourself about it and trying to, to take that step because that’ll, that’ll help push the system to fix it. Yeah.

[00:27:02] Russ: The other thing I would mention is if you’re buying a home in a flood area or a wildfire look up the insurance before you actually make that offer.

Because it can be expensive. It can be.

[00:27:15] AR Siders: Yeah. Sometimes you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars

[00:27:17] Russ: a year. Yeah. Hey, thank you so much for joining me today and talking to us about,

[00:27:20] AR Siders: yeah. Thank you for discussing this issue. It’s always great to have more conversations about these things. They’re hard to talk about, but they don’t get easier for avoiding them.

[00:27:30] Russ: And you know what? There is another positive. We’re not avoiding it. We’re talking about it right. At three episodes on climate change over the last three. Weeks. I thank you for listening to those. I thank you for subscribing. If you missed any of those episodes, Hey, they’re right there. Just subscribe to the podcast, go back and listen to the last couple of ex episodes and you know what next.

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