Monday, October 31, 2022

Guest Essay: Summer Of 2022 Gave Us A Glimpse Into Our Climate Future - PA Should Heed The Warning, Flooding Biggest Threat

By Laura Fowler, Director,
Penn State's Sustainability Institute

This guest essay first appeared on October 29, 2022--

This summer’s deadly mix of fires, droughts and flooding across the United States was a sneak peek into a future if global temperatures continue to rise, and here in Pennsylvania, we are not exempt. 

In fact, flooding is currently the highest risk hazard facing our state. 

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s 2021 Climate Change Impacts Assessment, “extremely heavy” precipitation events are expected to rise by 13%, by mid-century.

Warmer oceans spawn more intense storms, while warmer air helps those storms pack more of a punch as they reach land. Rivers will flood, as they have in the past, but now, other areas that don’t usually flood are also at risk from increasingly heavy precipitation. 

We saw this with devastating clarity in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, further afield with this summer’s back-to-back flood events in Kentucky, and even with Hurricane Ian in Florida.

A fixable challenge – if acted upon quickly – is turning the eyes of our state to the future, rather than relying on outdated government standards and data points to predict how flooding may impact Pennsylvania residents. 

This matters because our building codes are based upon historical records rather than projected future conditions and FEMA’s flood maps do not account for climate change.

The reality is that most communities in Pennsylvania are projected to face higher flood risk under future climate conditions, including in smaller boroughs and townships with less capacity to address such risks when compared to larger cities.

Local governments in smaller communities often lack enough people to participate in federal programs and they need equitable pathways to navigate this increasing risk especially as new federal funding is becoming available.

Additionally for many Pennsylvanians, the cost of flood insurance is prohibitive, putting them at risk of losing everything. 

More than a year has passed since southeastern Pennsylvania felt the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and many under-insured or uninsured residents are still displaced or facing financial hardships due to its impact

Hurricane Ian’s devastation in Florida emphasizes this risk. Even for those with insurance, the claim resolution process is often long and uncertain.

Importantly, many people simply are not aware they are at risk as past flooding in the state was largely around waterways, but climate change will challenge that by increasing the severity and frequency of rainfall events. 

Coupled with aging infrastructure and streams long buried and forgotten, the risk intensifies.

As the interim chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute at Penn State, I focus on environmental, energy and natural resource law, with a specific focus on water issues. 

As part of the Penn State Initiative for Resilient Communities, we’ve been working closely with the Borough of Selinsgrove on just these issues and can offer recommendations to prepare for future flooding:

-- With 2,500+ local municipalities, county/regional scale planning is critical for Pennsylvania because asking each local government to submit its own materials for FEMA’s Community Rating System, which has the power to unlock benefits for many communities, is unrealistic for small or under-staffed local governments. Enforcement of FEMA’s flood plain ordinances, which govern what can and can’t be built, also becomes cumbersome.

-- Affordable and timely solutions, such as elevating structures or moving utilities above the Base Flood Elevation can be a critical step. Offering tax credits or other incentives for such improvements could help homeowners and communities properly prepare. Reviewing building codes and considering higher minimum standards could safeguard new construction.

-- As my colleague Shirley Clark of Penn State Harrisburg is doing, finding forgotten and hidden streams can help lead towards creative location solutions while addressing lurking flooding problems.

-- Local governments and utilities can play a role in educating customers to understand and act upon the risk, especially if paired with programs to implement solutions.

Positive progress is being made, including investments from the Biden administration to restore the Delaware River Watershed which will help in Eastern Pennsylvania, and from FEMA to fund projects that increase flood resilience which is a similar boon for the southeast region. 

These programs are a step toward a safer future for all Pennsylvanians.

I urge our legislators and community planners to continue the momentum. Actions taken today can help mitigate our risk and keep Pennsylvanians safe in the face of looming flooding disasters.

Lara Fowler is interim chief sustainability officer for Penn State, director of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, and a professor of teaching at Penn State Law.

Related Articles: 

-- Gov. Wolf: 2021 Climate Impacts Report Projects Pennsylvania Will Be 5.9° F Warmer by Midcentury, Precipitation To Increase, Targets Areas to Reduce Risk

-- First Street Foundation Resilience Report: 588,804 Properties In PA Have 26% Chance Of Being Severely Affected By Flooding Over Next 30 Years

-- Gov. Wolf Announces Plan To Address Flooding Caused By Climate Change

[Posted: October 31, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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