November 5th, 2012 by

Last week’s Hurricane Sandy packed a devastating punch, exposing many areas’ vulnerabilities to storm surge and sea level rise along the East Coast, which could very well bolster the case for much-needed change in the government’s approach to evaluating flood risk.

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr

As reported by The Washington Post, with the increased likelihood of extreme weather due to climate change and the prospect of future sea level rise, experts from diverse fields — environmentalists, community planners, insurers and fiscal conservatives alike — are urging agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reconsider the way it evaluates the risks of floods.

FEMA draws the flood maps that guide local authorities as they determine where things can be built, and it relies on historical data instead of future projections in its analyses. A FEMA-commissioned study that concluded two years ago indicated that the size of the nation’s flood plains could increase 40 to 45 percent by the end of the century because of rising sea level and more intense precipitation.

Many homeowners and developers have resisted the idea of expanding the definition of flood risk because it raises costs and can restrict development, and policymakers are wary of the potential political backlash. It gets messier still when you take into account the 44-year-old National Flood Insurance Program, which provides Americans in flood-prone areas with federally backed insurance so long as they meet federal standards aimed at minimizing risks. Expanding flood maps would mean broadening the area covered by this program, which was already deep in debt before Sandy made landfall. Proponents of the flood insurance program hold that it provides coverage that would otherwise be unaffordable and saves taxpayers money by encouraging communities to be cautious. Critics, however, say that the program allows Americans to build in risky areas, as 40 percent of the total payout has gone to two percent of properties that were repeatedly flooded.

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Inhabitat/Flickr

With several recent studies having concluded that intense precipitation events are worsening due to climate change, FEMA is in the process of updating flood insurance maps from the 1980s and is setting up a “technical mapping advisory council” with the express purpose of studying how the agency might incorporate climate change into its analysis. It remains unclear, however, what shape FEMA’s policies will take in the future.

Climate change presents us with a new reality, and we cannot face it with old infrastructures and old systems. Hopefully, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will inspire us to move away from dated methods of flood-risk analysis and the all-too-common practice of rebuilding storm-damaged infrastructure exactly the same way, without accounting for the climatic changes underway.

Increased precipitation and major storm events are not the only symptoms of climate change connected to the rising sea level. Our good friend James Balog’s award-winning documentary Chasing Ice documents the alarming rate of glacier loss due to climate change. To produce this film, the filmmakers deployed revolutionary timelapse cameras across the Arctic, capturing a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers through a compilation of hauntingly beautiful videos. Chasing Ice opens this Friday in New York City and in other cities throughout the month.