A car drives through a flooded street

Stop Building in Floodplains

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 June 18, 2019 in The Progressive.

In early June, Diane Mueller fled her flooded home near St. Louis, Missouri, for the second time in two years. She hopes it won’t happen again.

When Mueller saw the water bubbling up through grates in the floor, she knew it was time to go. She and her husband, Stan, bundled the pets into the family truck and headed for dry land. Now they sit on the floor of an unfurnished rental house, contemplating next steps.

Floods have always been a fact of life in the nation’s great river valleys, but the problem is getting worse—as evidenced by the record-breaking deluge that drove Mueller from her home. Today’s floods are increasingly destructive, thanks to a changing climate that brings much heavier rains. And flooding is exacerbated by development in floodplains, often paid for with tax dollars.

When the Muellers bought their four-acre farm near the Missouri River thirty years ago, floods were relatively rare. Like most of their neighbors, they got hit by the great flood of 1993, but the land stayed dry enough for the couple to keep horses and chickens, cultivate a half-acre garden, and raise a family.

The Muellers’ land got soggier in 2003, after a 1.2 million-square-foot mall was constructed on nearby farmland. The St. Louis Mills Mall was built with $18.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF), which allows developers to cash in on future revenues generated by “improvements” to the property. Cities usually obtain money for TIF projects by selling bonds, which are repaid over time with tax revenues.

But here’s the catch: if those revenues fail to materialize, the city still has to repay the bonds. And taxpayers are left holding the bag.

That’s what happened with St. Louis Mills (since renamed the St. Louis Outlet Mall), which entered a death spiral years ago. Today, the cavernous mall sits mostly empty, surrounded by waist-high weeds. Its remaining tenants received eviction notices in May.

But the damage that the mall helped cause to the Muellers’ property remains. Now that the fields that once absorbed rainfall are covered with concrete, rainwater runs off onto neighboring land.

This spring, the Missouri state legislature considered a bill that would curb the use of TIFs to finance construction in floodplains, but developers helped kill it.

TIFs are only one of many tools used to build risky developments on the taxpayers’ dime. Developers can also petition FEMA to change their maps so that properties in floodplains are—on paper, at least—no longer in floodplains. That’s a boon for wealthy owners of waterfront property, who save up to 97 percent on National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) premiums. But we still bail them out when they flood, and pick up the tab when the NFIP—now $20 billion in debt—runs out of money.

For the Muellers, enough is enough. They are ready to give up on the place they call home, unsure where they’ll go next.

Such tragedies can be lessened. While rivers will continue to overflow their banks, we can limit the damage and suffering that results. We can use federal funds to elevate or buy out vulnerable homes. We can protect natural buffers like wetlands and forests. We can reduce global warming by ramping up clean, renewable energy.

And, starting now, we can stop paying developers to build in floodplains.

Download Resilience Matters!