Helm: Careful planning needed to prepare for floods
Throughout my career, in and outside the Legislature, I have worked to grow our economy while also preserving and responsibly managing our lands and natural resources.
Land use planning is critical to meeting the long-term needs of growing communities in a sustainable manner. This includes planning for, and working to mitigate, natural disasters like flooding.
Flooding is the most common and expensive natural disaster in the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flood- and hurricane-related disasters have cost the nation more than $845 billion in estimated losses since 2000.
Today, the impacts of Hurricane Laura on the Gulf Coast are just coming into focus with widespread reports of flooding and destruction.
While hurricanes are a rarity in the Northwest, damaging floods happen in Oregon almost every year.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency identifies 251 communities in Oregon as flood-prone, including locations in all 36 counties, 212 cities and three tribal nations. In just five years from 2013 through 2017, Oregon experienced 400 flood insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), with reported claims of $6,780,211 according to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.
In the United States, we have seen the severity of flood events and economic losses from flooding increase sharply. Many of those costs are born by taxpayers through federal disaster relief and subsidies to the NFIP.
As federal taxpayers, we all end up paying for flood disasters and their recovery. In order to mitigate these risks and costs, we must work to better prepare our communities and our critical infrastructure to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.
As chair of the state Legislature's House Committee on Water, this is something that I take very seriously. While the state of Oregon and many local communities are already working hard on flood mitigation, we also need to have a partner in the federal government. Below, I note several steps that can and should be taken on the federal level to help us address our growing national flood problem.
The increasingly costly cycle of flood damage and repair is driven in part by the outdated approach of federal agencies focusing on historical data that fails to account for today's weather patterns and future risk. Congress should address this problem by directing federal agencies to plan for future risk as they evaluate plans to spend taxpayer dollars in flood-prone areas.
We must ensure that federal agencies use the best available data when investing in the construction or repair of federally funded assets such as water utilities, roads and bridges, hospitals, and schools. In cases where insufficient data exists, agencies should have the flexibility to assume higher flood levels throughout the intended life of projects.
In addition, when shielding federal investments from future damages, a range of potential safeguards should be utilized, including nature-based systems or other resilience strategies.
My thoughts are with those impacted by Hurricane Laura and other extreme weather events that have become more frequent and intense in our changing climate. By improving risk assessment and flood planning standards, as well as leveraging natural systems and other mitigation strategies, we can protect people and property, increase the resiliency of federal investments, and accelerate post-disaster recovery.
Ken Helm has represented District 34, including parts of Beaverton, Cedar Hills, Rock Creek, West Slope and Northwest Portland, since 2015. A Democrat, he lives in Beaverton.
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