Flooding from Irene: Whither the Flood Plain?

Flooding from Irene: Whither the Flood Plain?

August 30, 2011 23:50
by J. Wylie Donald


My train this morning usually continues to New York. Today it terminated in Philadelphia, a victim of the deluge delivered by Hurricane Irene. Amtrak explained:

Most Northeast Regional service will operate south of Philadelphia, but no Acela Express, Northeast Regional or other Amtrak trains can operate north of Philadelphia to New York.

As of early this Monday evening, about a half-mile of Amtrak right-of-way remained submerged near Trenton, N.J. As the water levels recede, Amtrak engineering forces will make repairs to the track and signal control infrastructure. Updates will continue to be provided and an estimate for restoration of full service south of New York is not yet available.

Many attribute the recent spate of natural disasters (heat waves, droughts and wildfires in Texas, tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, Hurricane Irene) to the effects of climate change. We reserve judgment. Climate change is about trends, not individual events.

One trend we are watching closely is the status of flood plains. We dug up the Flood Insurance Rate Map for the Trenton train station. The Amtrak right of way mentioned above is in the 100 year flood plain. We weren't able to determine how many times it had flooded recently, but the mayor of nearby Lambertville noted that they have been flooded out 5 times in the last ten years.   The flood at the train station was a record, nearly seven feet above flood stage.  Id. And  a study out of the University of New Hampshire  reports New Hampshire has experienced 4 100-year floods in the last four years.  Some may discern a trend.

Fortunately, we are not the only ones watching. FEMA is in the process of preparing a report on climate change impacts on the National Flood Insurance Program. Preliminary information indicates that some Special Flood Hazard Areas (the 100-year flood plain) will double in size and that by the next century the nation's flood plain will be 40%-45% larger.  Look for The Impact of Climate Change on the National Flood Insurance Program to be out this fall.

FEMA currently does not directly address climate change in the NFIP, because its practice is to make its assessment based on the historical record.  But that does not mean communities and businesses cannot.  For example, a community may request that the applicable Flood Insurance Rate Map address future conditions.  44 CFR 64.3(a)(1).  Where business continuity planning is standard practice (and we hope that is everywhere) vulnerability assessments need to ask not only where is the flood plain, but where is it likely to be.  Many have been off to a slow start on climate change planning.  But, as with trains, late is better than never.

View of Trenton Amtrak right of way (c) Times of Trenton

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Flood Insurance | Regulation

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