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The 2019 Midwestern Floods: 
The Insidious Damage of Inland Flooding

Lessons from Past Floods: Part 2

In this three-part series, we explore three flooding events from recent years to see what we can learn about the damage they caused, how flood risks are rising, how local and federal officials responded, and how communities are building flood resilience in their wake.

From March through December of 2019, the Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers and their tributaries flooded millions of homes across the Midwest. The record-breaking winter and spring runoff levels were comparable to the Great Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

While the heaviest of the floodwaters came in early spring, the devastation lasted through late fall as subsequent rounds of gradual flooding compounded existing damage. As The New York Times reported, satellite data from the first half of the year shows the full scope of the event, which incrementally grew to an astonishing magnitude. 

One year later, Midwestern states are working hard to strengthen flood-resistant infrastructure and ensure their residents are prepared and have the financial and structural protection they need for future floods. Here’s what we can learn about flood resilience from the 2019 Midwestern floods, including a close look at how Nebraska is moving forward today

The Flood Damage: Floodwaters Submerge Land from the Dakotas Down to Missouri

An estimated 14 million people were impacted by the floods of 2019. The destruction spanned homes, businesses, roads, sewage facilities, and thousands of acres of farmland. The property-level flood damage totaled $6.2 billion, with roughly $1.6 billion in Iowa and $1.3 billion in Nebraska.

Figure 1: A flooded Hamburg, Iowa in March 2019. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The farmland flooding was particularly catastrophic: crops were ruined and livestock was killed, leaving a grim financial outlook for thousands of farmers. The waters of the Mississippi also carried chemical fertilizers from heartland farms, lawns, and other sources that contributed to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area with too little oxygen for fish and other marine life to survive.

All of this flooding unfolded slowly fueled by smaller snowmelt and rainfall events. The back-to-back, months-long flooding left little time for recovery until the last of the floods along the Missouri River were declared over in December.

The Flood Risk: The Silent Threat of Inland Flooding

In March last year, the NOAA warned that nearly 200 million people were at risk for flooding in their communities. That’s about 60 percent of the entire U.S. population.

Inland flooding is one of several non-hurricane weather events that can cause substantial damage to communities across the central U.S. While these communities certainly aren’t unfamiliar with flooding, they may underestimate their flood risk for a few reasons:

  • Extreme inland flooding events are rare enough that they aren’t top of mind for residents of these areas.
  • Homeowners may mistakenly believe that their homeowner’s insurance covers flood damage, which isn’t true. 
  • Homeowners might think their property is far enough away from a body of water to avoid flooding, which also isn’t necessarily true.
  • Residents of flood-prone communities may have seen past floods mitigated by drainage systems like dams or levees, but many of these failed in 2019.

And that risk may be increasing: climate change is an accelerating factor of inland flood patterns. Rising temperatures intensify the Earth’s water cycle, which means more rain and more frequent rain in high-precipitation climates. The compounding damage of the floods of 2019 may not be a once-in-a-century occurrence any longer. 

Live in a non-coastal area and not sure about your flood risk? Check your risk now.

The Response: A Collaboration of Local, State, and National Initiatives

The Midwestern states impacted by last year’s floods have a number of recovery efforts underway that are aimed at bolstering future mitigation, as Nebraskan local officials explain.

John Winkler, General Manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District in Nebraska, says that buyout programs have provided major relief.

“For those areas that are repeatedly damaged by floods, the [Natural Resources] District, in coordination with FEMA, offers floodplain buyout programs for those property owners in order to give them the opportunity to be removed from harm’s way.”

And the Midwestern states are working together to build future flood resistance. Jesse Bradley, Interim Director of the NeDNR, writes:

“The State of Nebraska is currently working with states of Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri to identify flooding areas along the lower Missouri River through a Planning Assistance to States study in conjunction with the USACE… to identify key areas of concern and system-level mitigation strategies aimed at reducing future flood risks.”

A Proactive Approach that Began before the 2019 Midwestern Floods

It’s worth noting that FEMA flood maps were already changing to better reflect risk before last year’s flood, according to Katie Ringland, State NFIP Coordinator and Floodplain Management Chief at Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources (NeDNR).

Ringland also notes that when the flooding began last March, Nebraska partnered with other organizations to improve flood mapping: “NeDNR started working with several agencies to collect high water marks in the flooded areas. In all, NeDNR and our partners, USGS, USACE, NRCS, Lower Loup NRD and several local communities, collected more than 700 [high water] marks.”

The Future: A Holistic Mitigation Effort of Educational, Structural, and Financial Measures

Nebraska is a great case study of an ongoing collaborative effort led by local and state officials to educate the public, build more flood-resistant communities, and ensure everyone has the financial protection they need in the event of future floods.

Figure 2: Nebraska was hard-hit by the floods: side-by-side images of the Missouri and Platte rivers in March 2018 and March 2019. Source: NASA.

Flood Risk Education

Nebraska flood experts agree that a long-term public education strategy is important because it’s easy to forget about flooding during dry years. “After the historic 2019 flood I believe Nebraskans are keenly aware of flooding and its destructiveness. However, like most natural disaster events, memories can be short and the awareness and willingness to act begins to fade quite quickly,” says Winkler. 

That’s why local, state, and national organizations must continuously educate their communities about flood risk. Education initiatives can be effective on the local level: the Nebraska DNR established National Flood Insurance Day on June 28 of this year it has created informational materials for local floodplain administrators, realtors, bankers, surveyors, and insurance agents.

Structural Protection to Mitigate Flood Risk

On the community level, communities along the Missouri river are strengthening critical infrastructure to be more resilient to flooding. The Papio-Missouri River NRD, for example, has established six goals for clean water and better flood protection: 

  • Water quality improvement
  • Peak flow reduction
  • Landscape preservation, restoration and conservation
  • Erosion and sediment control, other best management practices
  • Floodplain management
  • Stormwater management financing

On the property level, homeowners can pursue elevation and other floodproofing projects with support from FEMA: there are Hazard Mitigation funds available for these types of renovation.

Financial Protection for Homeowners and Landowners

Nebraskan flood experts agree that if you live in a flood-prone area, having flood insurance is vital. “Flood Insurance will payout even if there is not a federal declaration. If you get flood insurance through the NFIP, there are no limits to the number of claims,” says Bradley.

You can also check your flood risk to see if an acquisition would be beneficial. Talk with community officials to determine if they have an acquisition program or if they are interested in acquiring your property.

Want to get started on your own flood education? Head to our Intro to Flood resource page.

The Lesson from the 2019 Midwestern Floods: Take Action During the Dry Season

If there’s a positive that came out of last year’s historic flooding across the Midwest, it’s that it prompted a wave of important mitigation initiatives from homeowners, local officials, and state and national government programs.

While climate change means there could be more frequent extreme flooding events in this region, it’s also possible that we don’t see another flood of the same scale for many years. But that’s no reason to put off preparation. Mitigation works best when all pillars of protection, from enhanced levees to having flood insurance, are in place long before the flood strikes.

Have questions about flood risk? Go to our FAQ’s page to learn more.

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