Flood Damages Stacking Up in Northeast

With the Northeast still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Irene, the possibility of even more flooding was almost too much to comprehend. But last week the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee stalled and sent plumes of precipitation toward the Northeast, creating a replay of the floods a few weeks earlier. This time the area along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and New York was in the bulls-eye. Since the ground was still saturated from Irene, this new round of flooding was worse, surpassing the previous record event set in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes dropped a torrential downpour on the area.

In Wilkes-Barre, PA, 75,000 people were evacuated as the Susquehanna River crested at a record 42.7 feet. Local authorities said that levees were under “extreme stress,” but they held up, saving much of the city. An estimated 5,400 homes and businesses suffered some form of flood damage during the event, and 124 sewerage treatment plants were affected by the flooding, with 14 of them spilling raw sewerage into waterways.

Flooding along the Susquehanna River in Binghamton, NY (Source: Hans Pennink/ AP)

With recent flood damages measured in the billions, questions are being raised about how to pay for this latest round of disaster aid. Traditionally, the federal government has filled much of the gap, but FEMA’s disaster fund is down to $350 million and will be depleted by September 26 even if another disaster doesn’t strike in the meantime. Rebuilding projects have already been put on hold to secure short-term funding for shelters and other emergency help. If Congress does not act to re-capitalize the fund, all forms of aid to the recent flood victims could be shut off.

Unfortunately, an acrimonious atmosphere on Capitol Hill over budget deficits suggests that relief may not be forthcoming for many hard hit areas. Senate Democrats overcame a Republican filibuster to pass a $7 billion emergency disaster aid package but the measure is expected to meet further resistance from Republicans. House Republicans have suggested a competing plan that only offers $3.7 billion in disaster funding for $1 billion in cuts to a program to advance electric and hybrid cars.

In Vermont, disaster victims are losing faith in the federal government to be a backstop of support when disaster strikes. Federal emergency aid has been promised, but for many areas it has yet to arrive. For one farming family in Vermont, a nearby river shifted position completely washing out much of their farmland and leaving them with few options. Their insurance didn’t help because like most policies, flood damage is not covered. They were unable to get help from FEMA because their house was unaffected and federal emergency small business loans are unavailable to farms. Fortunately, neighbors are loaning farmland and pitching in to help the family get back on their feet.

Weather disasters in 2010 and 2011 have put a strain on the budget that has yet to be resolved. With Federal Flood Insurance already billions in debt and the federal government struggling to provide disaster aid, climate change is only increasing the risk that these costs will continue to rise. As climate change increases the risk of extreme weather, which science clearly shows will happen, it remains to be seen how future disasters will be paid for, or whether they will be at all.

Dan Huber is a Science & Policy Fellow