Friends and relatives in Nebraska sent links to the floods they’re currently experiencing. The people we know are lucky enough to have homes that are just slightly above the icy waters, but many of their neighbors are inundated and the cattle are dying in large numbers. There are serious questions about whether or not many family farms and small businesses will survive financially given their already stressed and precarious condition.
Another friend in Iowa described the floods there and how he’s constantly preoccupied with the potential damage the next one might cause. His family business was destroyed in a 2008 flood and the flood of 2016 came very close to damaging his new building which was intentionally chosen because it’s on higher ground.
Meanwhile here in northern California we were just hit with unusually bad floods as heavy rains pushed rivers over their banks and on to already saturated territory. California’s Mediterranean climate has long periods of drought, but when the rains finally return it’s too much all at once. These photos show the water as it gradually recedes, but just last week the adjacent roads were underwater. This flood comes on the heals of two years of record breaking forest fires. Drought and fire intensify the effects of flooding by making the sunbaked earth too hard to absorb water and by destabilizing hillsides causing mudslides.
There are numerous towns in the region, including Guerneville pictured above, that were built in spots that have flooded repeatedly for over a century. It’s nothing new. These towns are too close to the river, too low in the valley, and fundamentally too vulnerable in a way that can’t easily be fixed. Absolutely none of this is good for business or the local tax base. Without continual financial assistance from state and federal agencies few of these towns would be able to repair their own public infrastructure – not the roads and bridges, not the water supply systems, not sewerage treatment plants. It’s all structurally dependent on outside funding. A cursory glance at state and federal budgets suggests a reckoning at some point in the not-too-distance future. Natural disasters are merely the cherry on top of an already functionally insolvent cake.
Meanwhile private insurance companies are recalculating the increasing risks of too many structures in harm’s way of too many potential problems. A random house fire is a rare event that the industry can absorb. But when thousands of homes all burn in a single massive event – and when these events recur and intensify – that’s a problem that threatens the system. They’re limiting their exposure by tightening up their requirements for coverage, raising premiums, increasing deductibles, and cancelling policies.
The federal government’s flood insurance program has been insolvent and dependent on supplemental congressional funding since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The National Flood Insurance Program was set back even further after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. Consequently congress has been attempting to change the parameters of what FEMA and NFIP will and won’t cover in what it calls Risk Rating 2.0 based on the actual risks of each property rather than theoretical and outdated generic 100 year flood maps.
The banking and real estate lobbies are pushing back hard against these changes. If you don’t have (or can’t afford) insurance you can’t get a mortgage or refinance a property. As insurance rates rise the value of property tends to decline – partly due to the increased cost of home ownership, but also because high insurance rates send a signal to would-be buyers that the property is in a high risk location. To be clear, that’s exactly what the insurance industry is meant to do – assess and price risk. What banks and real estate agents (and many local municipal authorities) want is to artificially reduce the appearance of risk and then pass the costs of damage on to someone else by way of FEMA and NFIP. In the end the fires and floods will win as everyone involved goes broke trying to defend property and infrastructure that can’t reasonably be defended.
One side effect is that properties that are inherently safer due to better quality construction and more secure locations are rising in value and/or owned by people with more personal resources. Lesser properties in harm’s way have slid down the food chain and become poorly maintained rentals. There’s no rational justification for major renovations of a modest building if the next flood will wipe it all away again. Yet these rentals are often very expensive relative to local incomes in a housing market that’s already highly constrained for other reasons.
Back in 2012 a new retail development was built adjacent to the historic downtown of Sebastopol in an area that had previously been a semi abandoned warehouse district. I wrote about The Barlow some years ago. I actually really like the place. It was known from the beginning that this part of town is subject to flooding since it sits right up against the Laguna de Santa Rosa which expands and contracts with the seasons. Some years are wetter than others. Mitigation strategies were put in place as the twelve acre complex was planned and built. Waterproof barriers were designed to fit into each of the shops and pumps were installed to keep rising waters under control.
Unfortunately these were active systems that required people to take preventive steps ahead of a flood. Equipment had to be pulled out of storage and personnel needed to be mobilized. The official municipal-approved emergency plan was for fifty employees to erect the flood barriers over twelve hours. (The Barlow management doesn’t have anything close to fifty employees.) Since there’s no way to be certain if any given storm will cause a flood or not decisions have to be taken as to when – or if – it’s appropriate to spring into action. In this case it was too little too late. That’s not a criticism of the management at The Barlow so much as a general statement of human nature and the fact that passive systems – like building on higher ground or elevating the structures – leave more wiggle room for error.
Once the flood hit the management was suddenly very keen to respond with all manner of clean up crews and specialty equipment. Even with insurance that covers the building exteriors and structural envelopes this is going to hurt financially. The health inspector has declared that everything below the four foot mark must be removed and replaced since the flood water was tainted by raw sewerage. The loss of reputation as well as the expectation that there will be more floods in the future are long term problems that will need to be addressed. Rents might have to be lowered or expensive retrofits might need to be put in place. And the cost of insurance will only rise.
About half the shops at The Barlow were elevated just enough to avoid the high water and they’re still in business. But when the other half of the attractions are shut down with many unlikely to reopen due to the financial hit they endured the entire complex may be less successful moving forward. It’s unclear who might be willing to rent these vacant spaces in the future under the circumstances.
Shopkeepers were asked why they didn’t have flood insurance. It was no secret that the buildings were in a flood plain. They responded that the cost of insurance was higher than they could reasonably afford. This was coupled with policies that strictly limited what would and would not be covered that didn’t come close to the cost of merchandise and equipment. The insurance industry evidently priced this particular risk correctly.
A bland 1980s era office park on the same road was built on slightly higher ground. Whether this was a naturally occurring bump in the landscape or an artificially constructed platform is unclear to me. But it kept the buildings dry. Compare that to The Barlow directly across the street. I’m not sure if building up the soil on low lying areas near a protected wetland is even possible under current environmental rules. And the cost of terraforming and the associated infrastructure might not pencil out. And since this is essentially a shopping mall there are design elements that do and don’t work. An entire streetscape lined with shops that are all half a story above the ground simply don’t perform as well as those that are level with the sidewalk.
This all takes me back to the ways in which local governments interact with private commercial interests and the voting public to deliver new development. The original plan for The Barlow was for apartments and condos to go above the shops. This would have added to the historic Main Street fabric of the town. But the authorities said no. The municipal government desperately needs more tax revenue and jobs. They absolutely don’t want new full time residents who will burden the town with additional needs. And existing home owners don’t want more people moving in either. (See also: lack of available housing stock and insanely high rents. That’s a feature, not a bug.) At the moment there’s a vacant patch of land next to The Barlow that has already been approved for a luxury hotel and spa complex. Tax revenue and jobs. No housing. I’ll be curious if the design of the project is altered as a result of this flood.