Oct 11, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Flooding could shut down a quarter of all critical infrastructure in the U.S.

Map showing flood risk to homes, businesses and critical infrastructure in Charleston, W. Va.

Point on map locations of critical and social infrastructure in Charleston, W.Va., which fall within the First Street Foundation's 1-500 year flood plain (purple zones). Courtesy: First Street Foundation)

About 25%, or 1 in 4 units of critical infrastructure, such as police stations, airports and hospitals, are at risk of being rendered inoperable due to flooding, a comprehensive new report finds. The report points to climate change for heightening risks.

Why it matters: The new national inventory of flood risk during the next thirty years, which takes into account climate change-driven increases in sea levels and heavy precipitation events, is the first of its kind.

  • The report, from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit flood research and communications group, presents a stark warning to communities of all sizes — the U.S. simply isn't ready for the climate of today, let alone the extreme weather and climate events that are coming in the next few decades.
  • Specifically, during the next 30 years as the climate continues to warm, the flood risk situation will grow more dire, the report warns.

By the numbers: Consider these aggregate statistics from the "Infrastructure on the Brink" report:

  • About 2 million miles of road are currently at risk of becoming "impassable" due to flooding.
  • Nearly a million commercial properties, 17% of all social infrastructure facilities, and 12.4 million residential properties also have "operational risk," according to the First Street analysis.
  • Over the next 30 years, the typical lifetime of a home mortgage, about 1.2 million residential properties, and 2,000 pieces of critical infrastructure (airports, hospitals, fire stations, hazardous waste sites and power plants) will also be at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding from sea level rise, heavy rainfall, and in some cases a combination of the two, the report finds.
Critical and social infrastructure at risk of becoming inundated due to flooding in today's climate.
Infrastructure at risk of becoming inundated due to flooding in today's climate. Courtesy: First Street Foundation

Context: The report comes during a year that has already featured a record 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the first nine months of the year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

  • Deadly flooding from Hurricane Ida demonstrated the vulnerability of urban areas of New York and New Jersey to flash flooding. Catastrophic flooding in the Nashville area in March is also on the billion-dollar disasters list for 2021.
  • According to the First Street analysis, which uses an open-access flood model that incorporates coastal and inland flooding, the most at risk county in the U.S. for flood risk is tucked into the extreme southwestern corner of Louisiana. Cameron Parish is sparsely populated, with just 5,600 people as of the 2020 Census, but it's a hotbed of flood risks.

Of note: In Cameron Parish, the report shows that nearly 99% of residential properties, and similarly sky high counts of commercial and critical infrastructure structures, are already at risk of flooding so severe that it would knock them out of service.

  • Six of the seven top counties for risk are in the New Orleans area, Jeremy Porter, head of research and development at First Street, told Axios.
  • The communities most at risk are located in Louisiana, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia, with 17 out of the 20 most at-risk counties in the country located in those states, the analysis concluded.
  • The city slated to see one of the biggest jumps in vulnerability between now and 2050 is Norfolk, Virginia, which is home to the world's largest naval base, among other military installations.

How it works: Human-caused climate change is increasing sea levels around the world, but seas are rising especially quickly in the Mid-Atlantic region due largely to peculiarities in ocean currents.

  • In addition, Warming ocean and air temperatures are also translating into added water vapor in the atmosphere that can fuel stronger storms with heavier downpours.
  • The most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found increasing evidence tying global warming to more extreme precipitation events.

What they're saying: "Our nation's infrastructure is not built to a standard that protects against the level of flood risk we face today, let alone how those risks will grow over the next 30 years as the climate changes," said Matthew Eby, founder and executive director of the First Street Foundation, in a statement.

What's next: The organization is making the new data available for free to the public via its Flood Factor website.

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