It snowed a lot last winter. As this snow melts, rivers are swelling and overflowing, resulting in catastrophic flooding across the Midwest and other parts of the country.
Floods are often cited as the most expensive types of insurance claims for building owners. How can the extended plumbing and water management community keep future floods from being as destructive?
A Citylab.com article states, “Almost 75 percent of declared disasters in the United States are flood-related.” A 2018 article from The Hill found that “from 1980 to 2017, there were an average of 6 weather events each year that wreaked [more than] $1 billion in damage, adjusted for inflation. But from 2013 to 2017, the average was 11.6 events per year.” In 2018, the country had more than 11 weather events costing more than a billion dollars in damage.
Looking into 2019, in its U.S. Spring Outlook, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes: “Nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states face an elevated risk for flooding through May, with the potential for major or moderate flooding in 25 states. The majority of the country is favored to experience above-average precipitation this spring, increasing the flood risk.”
Some major floods will overwhelm every bit of water management infrastructure and there isn’t much to do. In many cases, however, a little flood preparation goes a long way. A National Institute of Building Sciences study found that every dollar spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for mitigation saves society $6 in future disaster expenses.
What you can do
What can service contractors do to help minimize flood damage? You could run a flood preparedness service special. If you know an area is at risk of flooding, call some of your customers and see if they are interested in having you come over to make sure their flood mitigation devices are working properly.
Don’t make guarantees that they will be 100-percent covered because it will depend on the water level. However, you may save a customer’s day if the home had a minor issue that would have left the owners with knee-deep water.
For contractors, building owners and anyone else, there are a few specific factors to look for: functioning sump pumps and pits, sewer-line backwater valves, floor drains with backwater floats and possibly leaky foundation issues that could contribute to flooding. It may be a good time to add flood-sensing devices so building occupants know when water is starting to enter low areas, for any reason. A battery backup for a sump pump may also be a good idea.
Give your customers a checklist for things to remember when flooding is likely: move photos and valuables out of the lowest areas, identify key places to sandbag, locate electronics that could be affected and clear debris from storm sewers. These are normally things you don’t think about until it is too late.
It may not seem like a building owner’s responsibility to clean out your neighborhood storm drains, but the water that can’t escape down into the storm drain may be headed for the basement of the closest building if it is the path of least resistance.
What can municipalities do? Fix leaks in sewer lines, especially in the lowest lying portions of cities. Poorly maintained sanitary and storm sewers can be a path for floodwater to enter and push back into buildings.
Municipalities also are best qualified to identify gaps in the underlying infrastructure needing to be shored up to handle major flooding. As cities get bigger and bigger, more hardscape (traditionally paved surfaces in place of vegetation) means faster funneling of water into storm drains, putting more pressure on municipalities and city planners.
FEMA and flood insurance
If you live on a hill and don’t have a high risk of flooding, why should you care about any of this? All taxpayers should care because you are already funding flood disaster management and cleanup through agencies such as FEMA.
FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program was reauthorized on Dec. 21, 2018. This program provides affordable insurance to property owners and pushes for better flood preparedness. It will cost taxpayers more and more as major flood events increase.
Most U.S. citizens can access these plans for about $700 a year, even if they aren’t in a floodplain. These are not high premiums to cover the wildly expensive costs of cleaning up after a flood. The NFIP is up for reauthorization before midnight on May 31, 2019.
Overall, the NFIP is not in good shape, according to a 2017 Wall Street Journal article. (The article was written while Hurricane Harvey was still battering Houston, so there is another major storm beyond the scope of this source.) At the time, the NFIP was in debt $25 billion. Superstorm Sandy contributed $8.4 billion to that debt alone. When adding the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the outlook for the summer of 2019, there is additional stress on this federal program.
We may not be able to rely on federal or private flood insurance to keep up with the cost of floods. Premiums will have to go up for specific areas or our politicians will have to allocate more tax revenue to support flood-prone areas. The underlying problem is the frequency of major flooding events and the number of people who live in flood-prone cities. It is not a game that is going to be easy to win for the U.S. taxpayer, especially when the payouts are for cleanup and not prevention.
The extended plumbing and water management community should play a bigger role in the direction of federal, state and local flood preparedness. The men and women in our trade know how to build things that act as an invisible hand to direct the flow of water.
Pay attention to local building codes and get involved in any way you can. There are probably many governmental conversations taking place about flood-related topics that don’t involve plumbers. If somehow our tax dollars end up paying for a trillion cases of sponges to distribute to flooded areas instead of building the systems and infrastructure to prevent the majority of flooding in the first place, we have ourselves to blame.
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