How your flood losses are increasing: whether you live in a floodplain or not.

Growing up in Seattle, I have learned to live with the rain. Through the years I have accumulated many stylish brands of rain boots, jackets, and umbrellas. But now that I have moved into my first home, the rain is starting to affect my life in a very different way.

Sunday night at 4 AM, I was awoken by a shrill buzzing noise. My flooding alarm in my basement was going off. Reluctantly, I went downstairs to find about a foot of standing water on my basement floor.

 In the first three weeks of March, we have seen double the amount of normal rainfall (3.6 inches vs. 1.7 inches). There have been 19 days with precipitation and 6 significant storm events. Let’s just say, it is extremely wet in Washington right now.

flooding, flood, washingtonUnfortunately, daily precipitation is only amplified as a result of global warming, therefore increasing the risk of floods. This change in precipitation events, coupled with inappropriate development in floodplains, is starting to carry serious consequences for Washington State. Since 1990, flooding has been blamed for 71 deaths in Washington State, Interstate 5 has been closed 4 times, and over 1,000 homes have flooded repeatedly.

Once floodplain areas are filled by development, the height of floodwaters rises, spreading the risk of flooding to larger land areas. What does this mean for homeowners? There is a one-in-four chance of a property in the 100-year floodplain being damaged by flooding over the 30-year life of a standard mortgage (compared to 1% chance of fire damage).  With increasingly severe storms due to global warming, if you live near a floodplain, your risk for flooding is now increased.

What many taxpayers don’t know is they are actually paying for these losses whether their home is affected by flooding or not. Seventy percent of Washington taxpayers who don’t experience floods are paying for the preventable damage of the other 30% of the state that does flood. In Puget Sound alone, there have been 14 federally declared flood disasters since 1990, totaling more than $1.4 billion in damage costs.

Originally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), was created to get people out of harm’s way by limiting development in floodplains. In reality, by making insurance widely available, FEMA has been subsidizing and essentially encouraging development in these high risk areas. Unfortunately, money out of our pocketbooks is not the only thing we are losing.

The Pacific Northwest takes great pride in claiming salmon and orca as an iconic species for the region. Floodplains are among the most biologically diverse and productive areas, providing critical habitat for these species.  In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a scientific and legal finding (called a Biological Opinion, or BiOp) that FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is contributing to the extinction of salmon and orca in the Puget Sound.

Now, 122 Puget Sound communities will have until September 2011 to bring their floodplain management regulations in line with NMFS’s BiOp. Changes to floodplain mapping, local building codes, and other modifications may be required for these communities to remain eligible for federal flood insurance. Some neighborhoods have already started planning and implementing changes; others however, are a little more hesitant or are only now starting to think about it.

Preventing new inappropriate development in floodplain areas through BiOp implementation is only the beginning. We need to work together to fix existing floodplain management problems, restore natural floodplain functions and habitat, and encourage low impact development techniques. We all must act to reduce the affects of flooding, because no one wants their house (or basement) flooded, including me.

Stay informed on important floodplains issues and solutions by visiting the National Wildlife Federation’s Pacific Regional Center website.