Q&A: How is flooding impacting where people live?

Weather

Nick Enero wades through floodwaters while helping his brother salvage items from his Merced, Calif., home as storms continue battering the state on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(NewsNation) — As coastal towns and urban areas alike are hit by more frequent severe flooding, some residents opt to pack up and leave while others are left to mitigate the risk of climate change on their own.

In California, more than 10 inches of rainfall overwhelmed drains and flooded city streets, while strong winds caused power outages that put more than 200,000 people in the dark. Severe storms also brought heavy rain, wind and flooding to Eastern Kentucky last year, sweeping away homes and killing 44 people.

NewsNation spoke with Janey Camp, director of the Vanderbilt Engineering Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, about the personal impact climate change is having on how and where people live.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NewsNation: Are there warning signs that people are already living in places that are no longer safe because of climate change?

Camp: Absolutely. There are a lot of people that are living in places that are at risk of flooding. Due to climate change, we’re seeing more extreme weather and intense precipitation over short-duration periods. We’re seeing precipitation events that we haven’t necessarily designed for and we need to start looking at climate change.

NewsNation: Are there specific areas in mind that are already at an increased risk to the extent that people should consider moving elsewhere?

Camp: The coastal areas, especially the East Coast and Gulf Coast where you are at sea level — there’s definite concerns there. And then along the inland waterway systems, the main rivers and the key tributaries to those I think would be concerns. In more developed urban areas, if you’re in a low-lying area sometimes the storm-water infrastructure is just not designed to handle some of the storm events that we’re starting to see.

NewsNation: What about places that may be protected by things like a levee?

Camp: There are also these places that are protected from flooding by levees. As we start seeing more of these intense storm events and flooding happening at levels that we didn’t necessarily plan for, there is this mindset that because the levees are there to stop flooding, over time, you forget that that area ever flooded to begin with. The levees were designed to a certain level and then if you exceed that you can have some overtopping issues and flooding behind levees. I don’t want to say if you live behind the levee, you should move. But I think there’s just a level of awareness that needs to be elevated about flood risk.

NewsNation: Is there a way of walking back that risk or should people be looking for other places to live?

Camp: There are places at risk that people need to be thinking about moving out of. We don’t have the infrastructure for everyone that is at minimal risk or some level of risk to just pack up and move, and most people can’t afford that, either. So we have to think about this strategically and do what we can to minimize risk.

NewsNation: What options do those homeowners have?

Camp: There’s options to elevate and relocate homes. There’s a home buyout program that exists and there’s certain requirements for that. Usually, substantial repetitive losses from flooding would qualify you. It’s often federal funds with some local match or a state match for buyout programs. But it also has limited applications because of those requirements and the amount of funding available. One of my concerns is that we have people, especially in low-lying areas that have not historically flooded that are going to experience flooding. It’s a widespread problem that it’s going to take a lot of creative solutions to deal with and it’s not going to be solved overnight.

NewsNation: What if someone doesn’t qualify for a program like that or they’re otherwise not able to up and leave their home?

Camp: There are a few things. Most of the flood-related deaths are people crossing floodwaters trying to get out or driving through flooded roadways and those things. Being educated, aware, and understanding the risks are almost no-cost things to do to help protect yourself. If you’re having extreme flooding on a fairly regular basis, you could probably work with your local floodplain manager at your city or county to talk about solutions and ways to mitigate. Soft infrastructure — maybe a small levee, berm or retention pond can be put up to help protect your property.

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