Climate Change: It Does Change Everything

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Flooding in Binghamton - Credit Katy via Flickr

Flooding in Binghamton, New York – Credit Katy via Flickr

Tarik Abdelazim serves as the Associate Director of National Technical Assistance for Community Progress.

From 2010 to 2014, I served as Director of Planning, Housing and Community Development for the City of Binghamton, a city of about 48,000 in upstate New York that shares all the historical scars and future potential of other small former industrial cities. When it came to housing, we had our challenges to contend with, not unlike so many of the communities my Community Progress colleagues and I work with now, but we also had to contend with an immovable force that presents a long-term threat to the vitality of some of Binghamton’s more stable neighborhoods: climate change.

I grew up in Binghamton, and for my first 30 years, I don’t recall one serious flooding event. However, during the eight years I served in City Hall, from 2006 – 2014, our city was hammered three times by federally-declared flood disasters. The historic flood of June 2006 was a stunner, but we shook it off, rolled-up our sleeves, and celebrated our resilience. Just five months later, a flash flood in November 2006 ravaged our infrastructure, sheering off roads, and damaging bridges, flood structures, and water and sewer systems. Though the repair bills totaled in the tens of millions, the general community response was again to write it off as another anomaly.

So, in 2010, when FEMA released preliminary new flood maps for all of Broome County—updating thirty-year old floodplain maps based on climate science, new modeling, and data gathered from the 2006 storm—the local reaction was confusion and disbelief.

In Binghamton, a city with about 14,000 parcels, the number of parcels in the 100-year floodplain jumped from a couple hundred to a couple thousand. The 100-year floodplain, which was previously nothing more than a thin band along the edges of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers that run through the City, suddenly fingered up and down into huge swatches of stable, blue-collar neighborhoods.

I remember catching a first-peek of the new flood maps with a couple of my planners. We all understood the value of updating the maps, a critical exercise that would help better protect life and property from future flooding events. We also saw the maps as a way to leverage support for policy proposals and investment strategies in building a more resilient and equitable community. Nevertheless, there we were, staring in disbelief at how the new floodplain now swallowed some neighborhoods whole. “This can’t be right,” we muttered.

Then Tropical Storm Lee hit in September 2011. More devastating than the 2006 flood. And wouldn’t you know it, the extent of the flooding matched almost exactly the new FEMA floodmaps that we were certain were wild exaggerations. In fact, the floodwaters reached even deeper into some neighborhoods than projected.

After this disaster, the community mood was palpably different: less resilient and more resigned. You could feel the anxiety. It was simple: a lot of residents no longer had a sense of security in their own home. The next great flood wasn’t a matter of if, but when. This was our new normal, and it was very unsettling.

It also meant new financial burdens for many homeowners and property owners who now faced flood insurance requirements. The preliminary flood maps, which now placed nearly a quarter of the city’s population and 19% of the city’s land mass in the 100-year floodplain, coupled with changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, were going to seriously threaten the housing markets in some of our “blue collar” neighborhoods. Not immediately, but in time. Climate change was not something we ever thought would have to be figured centrally into our blight prevention strategies, but there it was, a slow, inexorable force taking root in stable neighborhoods and demanding our attention.

Binghamton is not alone in having to contend with the very real impacts climate change will exert on neighborhood vitality, housing markets, and the general safety and welfare of its citizens. A quick google search for “FEMA new flood maps” turns up dozens of news articles from this year alone, explaining how communities in Tennessee, Massachusetts, Florida, Minnesota, and New Jersey are trying to grapple with expanded 100-year floodplains that reach deep into neighborhoods once thought safe. Some officials are warning that new flood insurance requirements are already having a chilling effect on neighborhood housing markets.

For those of us working to eliminate blight and vacancy from American communities, this phenomena is still not entirely on our radar, and understandably so. Most of us are still trying to contend with and reverse the decades of disinvestment and job losses in our former industrial cities, the major exodus from urban centers to the suburbs, and the economic disaster that was the mortgage foreclosure crisis. But climate change, the new normal of massive flooding events, and recent changes to the national flood insurance program, are looming as the next sustained assault on the health and vitality of many of our communities.

Most of us agree with the scientific community that climate change is a serious threat, demands urgent action, and opens up the door for daring but exciting transformative change that is inclusive, equitable, and sustainable.

Most of us know the new normal of climate change all too well. Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Ike in 2008. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The 1000-year storm in Colorado in 2013. The list keeps growing.

Most of us have also been watching closely the moves the U.S. Congress has made the last few years to address the massive debt FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has incurred paying out claims in the wake of these historic massive storms. With NFIP owing the U.S. Treasury more than $24 billion, it’s no surprise the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 (BW 2012) sailed through Congress, generally eliminating nearly all subsidized flood insurance policies and moving to much higher actuarial rates. However, the premium jumps were so massive that it sparked a near rebellion of local governments demanding that Congress go back to the drawing board to ease the financial burden of property owners, particularly when so many communities were still trying to recover from the devastation of two storms: floods and the foreclosure crisis.

Information about the impacts of FEMA’s new floodmaps is slowly rising to the surface, and here are just a few stories from the last six months:

– In Syracuse, NY, 900 more homes were newly added to the floodplain

– In Lynn, MA, the number of properties in the 100-year floodplain jumped 200%

– In Sarasota County, FL, officials and realtors are expressing concerns about the future vitality and marketability of a blue-collar neighborhood, where more than 22,000 properties have been newly added to the floodplain

– An October 2014 policy brief by the New York City Comptroller explains how more than 400,000 city residents and $129 billion of property value are now located in the city’s flood hazard areas—and many of those impacted are low to moderate income households—and a September 2014 report by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods (Rising Tides, Rising Costs: Flood Insurance and New York City’s Affordability Crisis) does an exceptional job outlining the impacts of rising floods and flood insurance premiums on the affordability and safety of many NYC neighborhoods

Congress did respond to this groundswell of concern over affordability by passing the Homeowner Flood Insurance and Affordability Act of 2014.  Overall, most of the original provisions of BW 2012 remain, but this bill does slow down the rate increases and restores one subsidized program. A key provision of the bill also mandates the National Academy of Sciences to carry out more extensive studies into the impacts of the changes to the NFIP and offer recommendations to Congress on how to address credible affordability concerns while still restoring health to the program’s finances. The first report was delivered to Congress earlier this year, and the second report is due September 2015. This article was never meant to dissect the particulars of these bills, so I encourage those interested to read the first report, an excellent primer and summary of these issues, which can be downloaded free of charge here.

So what was the point of this blog entry? Call it my canary call for those working on the causes of and solutions to vacancy and abandonment in our communities across the country. If it hasn’t already, climate change is coming soon to a neighborhood near you. And when it does, it’s going to change everything.