Flooding is the natural hazard with the greatest economic and social impact on the population of the United States. Catastrophic floods in urban areas—such as those caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in New York in 2012, and Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017— are seared into our nation’s memory. These floods caused significant loss of life, incurred tens of billions of dollars in property damage, adversely affected millions of people, and damaged the economic well-being of major metropolitan areas. Even small, frequent floods, such as those that occur during brief downpours or high tides, can have high cumulative social and economic costs.
A critical function of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal, state, county, and city government agencies is to help prepare for flooding, respond to flood disasters, and mitigate flood impacts over the long term. Central to this function are FEMA’s grants and loans programs—which provide post-disaster financial assistance to businesses, communities, and individuals—and its National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which makes federal flood insurance available in participating communities and analyzes and maps flood hazards.
FEMA has detailed methods to quantify the likelihood and extent of flooding from riverine, coastal, and other types of flooding. These analyses are aimed at delineating Special Flood Hazard Areas, defined as the areas subject to inundation by a flood having a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year (also known as the 100-year flood). Within cities, however, flood damage can occur everywhere and from more frequent, smaller floods. Such flood damage includes direct damage to property, as well as indirect damage due to economic and social disruptions. Consequently, a perception has developed in Congress (U.S. Congress, House, 2016) and elsewhere that urban flooding is a distinct kind of flooding, and that its cost and consequences need particular examination. That is the focus of this report.
Urban flooding is the accumulation of floodwaters that result when the inflow of storm water exceeds the capacity of a drainage system to infiltrate water into the soil or to carry it away. When a natural landscape is transformed by urban development, its drainage pattern is disturbed. The natural landscape, where flow gradually accumulates through small hollows and channels into local streams, is replaced by a graded landscape where streets carry surface water flow and become an important part of the drainage network. Storm sewer inlets drain water from the street system and convey the flow through subsurface pipes to discharge points at downstream locations. A combination of transmission systems—channels, streets, and pipes—conveys precipitation falling on the city to its outfall locations in larger streams or to the coast. Floodwaters accumulating in larger streams can overwhelm the capacity of the
stream channel and inundate surrounding areas, particularly in downstream areas that receive floodwaters from developed areas in the upstream part of the watershed. Coastal storm surge from storm winds can flow into coastal cities, causing direct flood damage and inhibiting drainage from inland flooding. Even in the absence of substantial wave surge or precipitation, coastal water can encroach on urban landscapes at high tide. Smaller, chronic floods can also occur in older cities with combined sewer systems carrying both storm water and wastewater. These systems can become surcharged during storms, causing sewer backups in homes and discharge of untreated wastewater into streams. Aging and inadequate drainage infrastructure and failing pipe systems create additional flooding problems. Urban flooding poses a distinctive kind of flood management problem for several reasons:
1. Flood problems reflect the history of a city and generally increase with urbanization. Many early U.S. cities were established along rivers and coasts to facilitate trade, support manufacturing, and transport people and goods. The growth of commerce and the availability of jobs and services drew people to these early settlements, a trend that accelerated with industrialization in the mid-19th century (Macionis and Parrillo, 2013). Hard street surfaces for motor-driven transportation became common, and city engineers began to design and construct sewer systems to carry human waste and storm water runoff away from homes and businesses (e.g., Figure 1.1).1 Cities began to grow outward with the help of steam-powered trains, electric street trolleys, subways, and eventually cars.
As cities grow, so do flood problems arising from the increasing fraction of impervious surfaces, reliance on storm water systems built for yesterday’s needs, development policies, and, often, proximity to water bodies. Land development alters natural drainage patterns that previously carried water away and creates hardened surfaces that inhibit infiltration of storm water (Appendix A). Storm water systems built to address these problems may be old (e.g., Figure 1.1), undersized for current needs, or poorly maintained (e.g., leaking pipes and clogged culverts and storm drains). In addition, permissive building practices or unenforced building or zoning ordinances have allowed dense land development in many flood prone areas (Appendix A).
2. A large and growing number of people are affected by urban flooding, and who is affected varies across the urban landscape. Approximately 86 percent of the U.S. population (277 million people) lives in metropolitan and micropolitan areas, defined as core areas containing a substantial population
nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core.2 In addition, population density is expected to increase in many urban areas (Appendix A). Flood impacts across these urban areas can vary at small spatial scales, sometimes neighborhoods or even households. And the ability of people to cope with flooding is influenced by their access to resources, such as financial support or community networks (e.g., Figure 1.2).
3. Roles and responsibilities for urban flooding are distributed among federal, state, and local entities. Depending on the metropolitan area, more than a dozen federal, state, and local government agency departments, nongovernmental organizations, and private entities may be involved in urban flood preparation, response, mitigation, and recovery. Which organizations are involved and their roles varies across metropolitan areas.
2 Figure from the U.S. Census 2016 American Community Survey, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/popest/total-metro-and-micro-statistical-areas.html. Definition from https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/metro-micro/about.html.
4. Tools to analyze and portray urban flood hazard in the United States are incomplete and inconsistent. In many cases, the default tools are FEMA maps and analyses, which were not developed to assess urban flood hazard. For example, FEMA maps and analyses do not include some aspects of pluvial flood hazard, flood hazard in small drainage areas (less than 1 square mile), or flood hazard created by drainage and other urban infrastructure (FEMA, 2003).
At the request of FEMA, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed a committee to hold workshops to gain an initial understanding of the causes and impacts of urban flooding in selected metropolitan areas, and to use that information to address three tasks (see Box 1.1). The objective was to contribute to existing knowledge by providing some real-world examples in specific places, based largely on regional workshops, and not to provide a comprehensive overview of urban flooding in the United States. As such, the report serves as a starting point for broader and deeper exploration.
Four metropolitan areas could be visited within the confines of the study, and the committee selected Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix. To address Task 1, the committee gathered information from stakeholders (government managers, academic scientists, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, and flood victims) through workshops and meetings, site visits, and telephone interviews in each metropolitan area. The discussions were organized around four dimensions
of urban flooding: (1) physical—the built and natural environments, (2) social—impacts on people, (3) actions and decision making—steps and policies for managing flooding, and (4) information—data used to understand flood events (see Box 1.2; adapted from Linkov et al., 2013, and Fox-Lent et al., 2015).
The workshop orientation of the study posed problems for addressing Tasks 2 and 3. In particular, the workshop discussions did not yield enough information to estimate the size or importance of flooding in the case study areas (Task 2). To address Task 2, the committee drew on published estimates of flood losses in the case study areas and also analyzed federal flood loss data. Task 3—relating urban flooding causes and actions to federal resources—is broad. The committee focused on needs that were identified in the case studies or the committee’s loss calculations and that are strongly connected to federal resources and policies.
This report explores the causes, impacts, and actions for managing urban flooding in four metropolitan areas: Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, and Phoenix. Chapter 2 summarizes stakeholder views of urban flooding in their metropolitan area, based on what the committee heard in workshops and field trips (Task 1). Chapter 3 estimates the magnitude of urban flooding in the four case study areas, based on committee analysis and published data (Task 2). Chapter 4 connects the causes and actions for managing urban flooding with federal resources (Task 3).
Supporting material for these chapters appears in appendixes. Appendix A summarizes trends in population, floodplain occupancy, land cover change, and climate change that influence the future