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Survey shows Americans too confident in flood, hurricane preparedness

KANSAS CITY, MO. — While a new America THINKS survey from HNTB Corp. shows six in ten (60 percent) Americans believe their area is prepared to deal with the potential damage from an extreme storm, hurricane or extensive flooding, events this spring have shown otherwise.

“Recent flooding in Nashville put our flood management and levee systems to the test – and they failed,” said Rob Vining, HNTB flood management practice leader. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s levees a grade of D- in its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

More than half (55 percent) of Americans believe that if there is a major storm, hurricane or flooding event this year, their home or neighborhood will experience severe damage. With the threat of a busy Atlantic hurricane season, Southerners perceive themselves at greatest risk of a big storm or flood in the next five years (78 percent), while people in Western states perceive themselves at lowest risk (46 percent).

“Additional education is needed to inform the public of the true threats in their region and what can be done to manage their flood risk,” Vining said. Nearly every state has some level of storm-related flood risk.

Flooding is the biggest natural threat to homes and properties nationwide, yet just 39 percent of Americans think so. According to ASCE, there is a 26 percent chance a 100-year flood event will occur during the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Such flood events occur as a result of flash floods, torrential rains, ice thaws, stormwater runoff, hurricanes or nor’easter storms that overwhelm rivers and levees, many of which are aging and in disrepair.

When asked to estimate what percentage of levees in the United States is in disrepair, 42 percent of Americans simply said they did not know. The average response among the remaining 58 percent was that almost two-thirds (63 percent) of levees were in need of some kind of improvement.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was charged with the first-ever inventory and assessment of the nation’s levees. The work is far from complete — but early results released last year indicated half of all federally inspected levees do not have deficiencies, while approximately 9 percent were expected to fail in a flood event.

During the past two years, 177 communities have received notice from USACE that their levees are unlikely to withstand a significant flood. Additional notifications are expected as the Corps continues its inspection efforts.

If cities cannot bring deficient levees up to a minimum 100-year level of protection within two years, FEMA could redraw flood plain lines on the assumption that the levees in question do not exist.

“The threats of uninsurability, deflated property values and halted development plans under redrawn flood maps would hamper economic recovery amidst the largest downturn since the Great Depression,” Vining said. “FEMA or Congress should intercede to extend remapping timelines while improvements are underway. Until these fixes are in place, homeowners who live behind deficient levees should protect themselves with flood insurance, if they can afford it.”

Unfortunately, millions of homeowners are not proactively safeguarding their properties. Despite the fact that nearly 42 percent of Americans live in areas protected by levees, only 22 percent of homeowners currently report having flood insurance. Twice as many (44 percent) admit they have never had this kind of protection for their home or even considered it.

The cost to repair our nation’s levee systems is extensive. According to ASCE, $50 billion is needed during the next five years just to maintain and support already planned projects. Vining estimated the total price tag could expand to several hundred billion dollars.

“The only way to reasonably fund a national program is to better distinguish between theoretical deficiencies and imminent needs,” Vining said. “Local, state and federal governments must work together to identify funding. We need a balanced, systematic approach that prioritizes risk and strikes a balance between flood control, protecting the environment and reviving our economy. This includes restoring floodplains and shoring up our levees with better safeguards and promising new technologies.”

Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans said they would be willing to pay additional taxes (an average of $399 per year) to ensure there are enough measures in place to protect their area from extreme storms, hurricanes or extensive flooding.

American homeowners who had experienced storm or flood-related damage in the last five years reported an average of $5,079 in repairs. According to USACE, federal levee systems currently provide a six-to-one return on flood damages prevented compared to initial building cost. Based on the USACE calculation, an investment in levee systems of $169 a year, or about half the average amount indicated by the America THINKS survey, could protect against this level of damage.

The National Committee for Levee Safety has recommended transitioning to state-managed levee improvement programs based on nationally-established standards. HNTB’s survey results show most Americans agree with more regional control, as well as more regional funding.

Four in ten (40 percent) Americans believe that state governments should hold primary responsibility for managing flood system improvements. Far fewer (23 percent) would like this task to fall in federal hands. Just ten percent see it as a private owner’s responsibility. And most Americans (51 percent) prefer city or state dollars fund improvements to flood management systems.

“This is an opportunity for us to reexamine our current levee management approach and funding mechanisms in order to find alternative models where states, municipalities, private owners and investors play a greater role,” Vining said. “That could include applying a portion of property tax revenues to a flood management system repair fund, or developing local government incentives that encourage private investment through public-private partnerships.”

For more information about HNTB, please visit www.hntb.com.