Hurricane Sandy: Why does the Public Understate the Risks?
A week after Sandy, another storm is brewing along the U.S. East Coast bringing more rain and flooding to communities that are still struggling to recover. As mass evacuations are ordered, we are reminded of the obvious: nature knows no boundaries when it comes to flooding. Every property owner is at risk.
The statement may seem obvious now, and yet it is so easy to forget. Here in Chicago, the region was pummeled by Hurricane Ike in 2008, with severe storms and flooding in July 2010 and then again in July 2011. Damage is not restricted to cataclysmic events—CNT’s interviews with property owners tell a tragic story of ongoing damage when it rains. Elizabeth Rafferty’s South Side Chicago home has flooded four times in the last two years; flood damage to Jim Vinci’s home in Des Plaines cost him $150,000; and Darlene Crawford estimates that she’s been flooded around 30 times in the last four decades. People told us of the stress they suffer whenever it rains; of days off work, and of the problems tackling mold and dampness.
Chicagoland property owners are not alone. Our recent survey of major cities across the eight Great Lake states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) indicates that most municipalities characterize the risk of flooding as ‘medium’ or ‘high’. Stormwater is flooding into people’s backyards, streets, and parking lots (90 percent of respondents said); into the interior of buildings through sewer backups (83.3 percent); and through the walls of homes and buildings (46.7 percent). The risks are set to increase. Research suggests that Midwestern states have experienced a 31% increase in very heavy precipitation events between 1958 and 2007, and this trend is expected to continue.
Given the very real costs of severe weather events, it is remarkable how incapable we are at preparing for them. Only 53.3 percent of the respondents to our Great Lakes survey have a plan for dealing with property flooding. Even fewer have a system in place for tracking the plan’s success or failure. The situation parallels the public’s lack of preparation for flooding. Even in designated floodplains, property owners often lack flood insurance. Research on attitudes toward flooding suggests that the public massively underestimates the risks they face and believe that, by and large, it is government’s role to protect them.
How does this affect public investment in flood protection measures? Research indicates that the way we engage the public in these discussions matters. Messages should be locally relevant, explaining the cost to communities of ‘no-action’. And preparedness should demonstrate how neighbors acting together can help reduce the impact of flooding. The role of communities is clear: people learn from and follow the actions of their neighbors.
The lesson is relevant to our own work. In Cook County, IL, CNT is working with several communities to map the cost and risks to property owners of urban flooding, and to develop neighborhood solutions. Listen to CNT’s President Scott Bernstein talk about Chicago’s vulnerability to flooding and its infrastructural challenges on WBEZ’s Morning Shift.
CNT’s flood alleviation initiative is funded by the Surdna Foundation, State Farm, the Joyce Foundation, Grand Victoria Foundation, and Prince Charitable Trusts. For further information contact Harriet Festing at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.cnt.org/water/.