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Guest commentary / FEMA

Flood of concerns over insurance program

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By Dan Siemann
The federal government's flood insurance program missed the boat. To be more precise, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, missed an important opportunity to protect people, homes, businesses and imperiled salmon and orca.
Improved floodplain protections were supposed to go into effect on Sept. 22 throughout Puget Sound. Unfortunately, FEMA is continuing to encourage harmful development in dangerous flood-prone areas. Some communities have made important improvements to prevent this kind of risky and costly development. However, those that haven't are increasing the flood risks -- and the flood costs -- for all of us.
That's why the National Wildlife Federation recently filed a formal notice that -- unless FEMA acts to protect communities and the environment from inappropriate development -- we will file a lawsuit and ask a judge to resolve this controversy.
This is an important step because reducing the risks and costs of flood disasters is essential if we hope to maintain healthy communities in Puget Sound.
The need to keep people out of harm's way and reduce property and environmental damage is greater now than ever. Since 1990, we've experienced 14 federally declared flood disasters -- more than one every other year. Those floods have caused at least 57 deaths and cost taxpayers more than $1.4 billion in repairs statewide. I-5 has been closed four times due to flooding, halting transportation and commerce and disrupting communities. More than 800 homes have been flooded multiple times. Nationally, FEMA is more than $17 billion in debt and Congress is balking at bailing them out.
And in the future, flooding and flood costs will only get worse. A forthcoming report by FEMA projects that areas at high risk of flooding will grow by 45 percent nationwide due to the increase in heavy rains predicted by climate change models. In the Skagit river system, flooding is projected to grow by more than 20 percent in the next 30 years. This trend will also challenge levee systems, which are notoriously unreliable and costly to maintain. Levees were overtopped, damaged or outright failed in nine of Puget Sound's 14 flood disasters, requiring more than 200 repair projects and costing taxpayers more than $125 million.
It turns out that floodplains are not just essential for public safety; they are also critical habitat for salmon and other fish. More than 100,000 homes and businesses have been built in flood-prone areas that are also salmon habitat, and this has contributed to the precipitous drop in wild salmon populations, which are a key food source for Puget Sound orca. In 1908, there were an estimated 690,000 wild chinook in Puget Sound. As of 2008, there were less than 43,000, a reduction of 93 percent.
FEMA's flood insurance program is supposed to direct development away from flood-prone areas, but in fact it actually encourages and subsidizes development in floodplains. As a result, salmon are at risk of extinction and our communities have suffered losses that could have been avoided.
Protecting floodplains is good for public safety, good for salmon and good for taxpayers. It's time that FEMA lived up to its responsibility to protect people, homes, businesses and our environment.
Dan Siemann is a senior environmental policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.

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