In my last blog post I talked about some of the conditions that contribute to flood events and the term 100-year as a probability estimation. This probability measure impacts communities and the river in some unexpected ways. This blog post is going to dive into the connections between geography, demographics, and flooding. These connections will help us think about how policy decisions impact our communities and why we are stuck in cycles of redevelopment in the floodplain.
When the term 100-year flood was created, the 100-year floodplain also emerged. Which makes sense. If you can make an estimate about when a flood will happen you can also make an estimate about about where this flood will occur. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set out to determine where 100-year floodplains are. This mapping project had public safety and emergency evacuation in mind. As this mapping process continued, FEMA found people had already built homes and businesses in this area with an established rate of flooding risk.
It seems reasonable to stop allowing people to put resources and time into building properties in the 100-year floodplain. However, this is not what has happened. Today it’s possible in most cases to develop in the 100-year floodplain. The 1973 Flood Disaster Protection Act set a requirement for all property owners living in a 100-year floodplain to have flood assistance policies. While it seems pretty smart to require people who live in areas that are likely to flood to own insurance policies that cover flooding, this insurance requirement inadvertently subsidized development in floodplains by paying people to rebuild homes in floodplains where we know will eventually flood again. It’s a bad cycle, funded by other homeowners who pay their flood insurance premiums. So what do we do? Are there any long term benefits to allowing homes to be destroyed and rebuilt throughout generations? Do we just let this cycle continue to repeat? To end this cycle does the government relocate all property in the 100-year floodplain?
The socio-economic landscape of our country complicates these already complicated questions. Flooding hurts home values. This fact in the context of the rampant racism in real estate policies and practices in the 20th century helps us understand why many floodplain communities are largely black. In 2012, Congress attempted to update the flood insurance policy requirements with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. Insurance companies wanted the premium rates to reflect the full risk rates, in other words they wanted more money to be paid into the insurance system to make sure it stayed stable (and they wanted this money to come from property owners not the federal budget). This true pricing of risk was strongly contested because it disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities and threatened home ownership since many low-income communities are the ones stuck living in frequently-flooded homes in floodplains.
Historians and policy-makers are tracing the history of decisions that have created our landscapes. Policies relating to labor and wage-reform in the 1920’s were hugely instrumental in distributing wealth throughout the nation, real estate policies shaped where people lived, zoning laws decided where people built, the list goes on and on. It is easy to be blind to the many decisions that create our reality.
While we’ve found ourselves in a very complex social, political, and economic situation, at 1 Mississippi we want River Citizens to be involved in decisions that shape our lives. It may feel like there are few options for River Citizens to shape solutions, but River Citizens can do a lot! 1 Mississippi advocates for policies that reduce flooding risks while simultaneously taking care of its citizens. You can take action today at the 1 Mississippi Action Center! If you haven’t already, sign up to become a River Citizen today.
Minnesota 1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant