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Floodplains and People in a Climate Changing World

Ivy Frances, FEMA Region I, Boston, MA (invited)
Tuesday, June 17 @ 9:15am


Human development in floodplains and along the coast is not new. Three hundred years ago, the very survival of towns and communities relied upon their proximity to water. But today, many of New England’s coastal communities are not located on the coast by necessity, but because of the desire to live, work and play near water. This desire has economic, social and political implications.

A tension exists between the economic benefits and economic risks associated with coastal and floodplain development. Development of floodplains and coastlines can bring high economic value to a community, through mechanisms such as increases in commercial and industrial activity, tax revenue and tourism dollars. However, coastal development also means high risk to homes and businesses, and puts safety in peril.

Storms and flooding events disrupt the normal economic conditions for both individuals and the community at large. If the damage to the community is severe enough, citizens lose jobs, schools are damaged or destroyed, social support networks break down, and the wellbeing of individuals and the community is impacted. These issues are quietly dealt with on smaller disasters, but as we’ve seen with larger disasters these issues become compounded and complex.
The cost of recovering from these events is shared by individuals as well as among the local, regional and federal communities. Policy decisions at all levels have a large effect on who pays the costs and what incentives exist to take action, both before and after a storm. All taxpayers, via programs such as disaster assistance and government subsidized flood insurance, participate in the recovery of all communities after major storms. Some politicians want to reduce the federal budget by shifting costs to individuals in high risk areas, but others are reluctant to have their constituents bare the full cost of risk because it can make owning a coastal home unaffordable or in many cases be a burden for resale. These high level decisions have very real implications for individuals. Recovery from a storm can often be quick if an individual has flood insurance, while a lack of flood insurance can be devastating.

In addition, the effects of climate change are now adding even more complexity, uncertainty and burden to already overworked local, state and federal officials and to those that live, work and play near the water. How do we cope? What tools have proven to be successful? Do we know what costs to consider when making decisions that affect our coastal and riverine communities? Regulations, coastal retreat, higher flood insurance premiums, FIRM maps, lower flood insurance premiums, build higher, stronger levees, save floodplain habitat, don’t build here –these all seem to be common sense ideas, yet we have enormous difficulty when we try to implement them.

Is it possible to manage our cities, our landscape in a climate changing world? If we look back three hundred years, could the inhabitants of New England ever have imagined what their environment would look like today? Do we have the tools and the wherewithal to plan for the next 300 years? And if we do, how do we do it in a way that can be implemented?


Presentation Slides
788 kb uploaded September 30, 2014 12:06pm