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The Overlooked Inland Flooding
Consequences of Climate Change

Inland flooding poses a massive threat to millions of homes across the country, but this risk sometimes flies under the radar when media stories focus on large coastal storms and flooding events. 

While Americans in states like Iowa and Nebraska are no strangers to the dangers of flooding, other inland property owners might feel a false sense of security if they live far enough from a floodplain or aren’t in a designated FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA). 

But flood risk isn’t just increasing for those who live in SHFAs– thanks to global warming, it’s increasing in the middle of the country, too.

Here’s what you need to know about the impact of climate change on inland flood patterns and how to protect your home from damage.

How a Changing Climate Wreaks Havoc Inland

A warming planet has clear-cut effects on coastal communities: rising sea levels and higher ocean temperatures, which cause more frequent, more intense storms. This is already happening – scientists have concluded that climate change measurably increased the duration and magnitude of major storms like Hurricane Florence.

And storms made worse by climate change develop wide trajectories. As a powerful storm moves over land, it loses wind strength and builds precipitation, dumping lots of rainfall on communities hundreds of miles from the coasts. Back-to-back coastal storms can be especially devastating as they move into inland areas, as already soaked soils and swollen rivers can produce serious flooding if they don’t have time to drain.

But the risks of climate change don’t end after an hour or two drive from the coasts. Extreme rainfall events have increased nationally over the past 30 years, particularly across the Midwest and Northeast. That trend is likely to continue: a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which leads to heavier precipitation. The 2019 Midwestern floods are an example of a string of heavy inland rainfall events that caused lasting damage.

Inland Homeowners Face Flood Risks Unaccounted for by FEMA

Recent flood data from the First Street Foundation, which takes into account sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and flooding along smaller creeks not mapped federally, revealed that nearly twice as many properties are at risk of flood damage as FEMA maps suggest.

While FEMA designates 8.7 million properties in a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), the First Street data put that number at 14.6 million. Inland areas saw some of the biggest jumps, including in major inland cities like Chicago.

Property owners in these gap areas (at real risk but not in an SFHA) go uninsured and unprotected during major storms and rainfalls.

Inland areas are in trouble when the volume of floodwater exceeds the capacity of drainage capabilities. There are a combination of infrastructural and geographical factors that put inland property owners at risk for flood damage:

  • Outdated dam infrastructure
  • Insufficient natural or built drainage systems
  • Rising floodplains 
  • Proximity to areas susceptible to rapid snowmelt

Even as FEMA updates its flood maps, it’s clear that millions of Americans can’t rely on the agency alone to learn about their full flood risks.

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Better Flood Protection Starts with Better Flood Awareness

Better Flood Protection Starts with Better Flood Awareness

The first thing inland property owners can do to boost their flood preparedness is to find out what their risks are. That way, they can get the flood insurance and prevention measures they need to protect their property.

Properties in Special Flood Hazard Areas, with federally regulated mortgages, are required to purchase flood insurance. But for other zones classified as moderate- or low-risk, flood insurance is optional. That means inland communities in harm’s way from coastal storms or intense rainfall events might not be in SFHAs. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, for example, a whopping 80 percent of flood victims didn’t have flood insurance. 

Property owners can talk to their insurance agents to understand their property’s risks and whether they’ve changed in recent years. Agents can then help property owners secure the coverage that’s right for their flood risks, even if it’s not required.

The Climate Is Changing Everywhere – Not Just Along the Coasts

Big news stories tend to paint the risks of climate change as a chiefly coastal problem. But that’s not the full story.

Inland flooding is a growing risk for regions all across the country. Until FEMA maps change to reflect this reality, millions of Americans need better flood protection to prepare for the threat of heavy storms and intense rainfall made worse by climate change. Getting flood insurance is a crucial first step.

Want to learn more about flood protection? Head to our Intro to Flood video series to get started.

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