A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published October 8, 2019 in U.S. News & World Report.
When Terri Straka bought her home on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1991, flooding was never a problem. Back then, her development was surrounded by coastal wetlands – the lowland forests and blackwater creeks that soak up rainfall and storm surges.
Fast forward to 2016, when Hurricane Matthew roared ashore. By that time, Straka’s home was hemmed in by newer developments, constructed on fill dirt to raise their elevation. The newer developments left Straka and her neighbors in a low-lying bowl. Matthew flooded her home, “destroying everything I own,” Straka says. She had just rebuilt in 2018 when Hurricane Florence slammed the coast, filling her home with 4 feet of floodwater.
Some call it “fill and build” – the practice of piling fill dirt on flood-prone land, then constructing housing or other developments on top. As Straka and her neighbors have discovered, “fill, build and flood” might be more apt.
You might ask: Why build on flood-prone land at all? The answer is money. Developers can charge a premium for homes near the water. And unbuilt land in the flood plain is cheaper – and more abundant – than land on higher ground. These economic realities are driving a vast expansion of development in flood-prone areas. In fact, between 2000 and 2016, the U.S. saw more population growth in flood plains than outside of them.
State and federal laws typically allow construction in flood plains, as long as buildings are lifted above the expected high-water level. The least expensive way to do that is by trucking in fill dirt and spreading it on the land. Voila! Higher ground.
But there are several problems with this picture. First, there’s the loss of the flood plain itself. When water-absorbing lowlands are paved and developed, there’s simply nowhere for excess water to go – so flooding is the inevitable result. It’s a problem that is getting worse as the planet warms, bringing supercharged storms, rising seas and increasingly devastating floods.
Fill-and-build also creates islands of higher elevation, creating runoff that may inundate older, lower developments. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how water behaves; it flows to the lowest point,” says Ed Browne, a Houston electrical engineer who opposes fill-and-build. Often, those lower elevations are home to low-income people and people of color, communities that fare worse after disasters of all kinds.
Yet the building continues, in part thanks to incentives for local officials. Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, says development of flood-prone areas means that “local officials get a bigger tax base.”
“And if it floods, well, federal taxpayers will bail them out,” he says. “So they get all of the benefits and none of the harms.”
Such incentives have spawned a cavalier attitude toward flooding by local officials and developers. In Southeast Texas – which is now recovering from what was at least its fourth “500-year” rain event in five years – the Harris County Flood Control District routinely uses legal strategies to remove properties from the flood plain, converting them to developable properties, Browne says.
“They are doing this even in the same watersheds where (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) previously bought out flooded properties,” he says.
Nonetheless, as floods increase and development accelerates, residents are fighting back. Browne helped start a group called Residents Against Flooding a decade ago; the group has challenged fill-and-build development in the flood plain with lawsuits, and is now pursuing a fraud complaint.
Groups like Residents Against Flooding are taking action elsewhere as well. Harriet Festing leads Higher Ground, the largest flood survivor network in the country. The network represents 50 flood survivor groups from 22 U.S. states. Festing says that fill-and-build is a particular concern of the network, along with reforming flood insurance laws and reducing human-caused global warming.
“The stakes are incredibly high,” Festing says. “You have unchecked development in the flood plain, combined with unprecedented storms and flooding. Too many people are one storm away from catastrophe.”
But cities can break the cycle of fill, build and flood. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, enforces strict regulations on fill-and-build development – protecting natural areas around creeks and limiting construction to the fringes of flood plains. Homeowners pay a fee, based on the amount of impermeable surface on their property, that provides a dedicated source of funding for stormwater management.
Importantly, Charlotte does not rely on outdated FEMA maps that calculate future risk by looking at the past. “We look ahead,” says Tim Trautman, program manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, “and base flood plain maps on future conditions” that account for increased development and wilder weather.
In addition to limiting future construction, “We ‘un-develop’ areas by buying out properties that are likely to flood,” Trautman says. Those undeveloped areas become greenways and parks that benefit the community and boost adjacent home values. In fact, rising home values offset losses to the tax base from the removed properties, Trautman says.
As Straka and too many others have learned, Charlotte’s forward-thinking approach remains the exception, not the rule. And the federal government is heading in the wrong direction on this issue: Last month, President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency repealed the Clean Water Rule, making it easier to build in wetlands.
But that can change. “It all boils down to enlightened local leadership,” says Larson of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “All you need are leaders who look at the problem and decide to do the right thing.”