AP: States boost flood prevention as damage costs soar
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — After devastating flooding this year, Iowa put $15 million into a special fund to help local governments recover and guard against future floods. Missouri allotted more money to fight rising waters, including $2 million to help buy a moveable floodwall for a historic Mississippi River town that’s faced flooding in all but one of the past 20 years.
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced $10 million to repair damaged levees while creating a task force to study a system that in some places has fallen into disrepair.
The states’ efforts may turn out to be only down payments on what is shaping up as a long-term battle against floods, which are forecast to become more frequent and destructive as global temperatures rise.
“What is going on in the country right now is that we are having basically an awakening to the necessity and importance of waterway infrastructure,” said Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican who has been pushing to improve the state’s levees.
The movement is motivated not just by this year’s major floods in the Midwest, but by more than a decade of repeated flooding from intense storms such as Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 60 inches of rain on southeastern Texas in 2017. In November, Texas voters will decide whether to create a constitutionally dedicated fund for flood-control projects, jump-started with $793 million from state savings.
For years, states have relied heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay the bulk of recovery efforts for damaged public infrastructure. While that remains the case, more states have been debating ways to supplement federal dollars with their own money dedicated not just to rebuilding but also to avoiding future flood damage .
Although President Donald Trump has expressed doubt about climate change, even calling it a hoax, a National Climate Assessment released last year by the White House warned that natural disasters in the U.S. are worsening because of global warming. The report cited a growing frequency and intensity of storms, heat waves, droughts and rising sea levels.
Preliminary assessments compiled by The Associated Press have identified about $1.2 billion in damage to roads, bridges, buildings, utilities and other public infrastructure in 23 states from the floods, storms and tornadoes that occurred during the first half of 2019. Those states also have incurred costs of more than $170 million in emergency response efforts and debris cleanup.
In addition, an AP survey of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers districts found that this year’s floodwaters breached levees in about 250 locations in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The Army Corps estimates that levee repairs could top $1 billion in the Missouri River basin, where most of the breaches occurred.
The AP’s research shows that Nebraska was one of the hardest hit states, with a preliminary assessment of about $435 million in damage to roads, bridges, utilities and other public infrastructure from a March storm . Rain fell on a still frozen terrain, causing a sudden snow melt that sent huge chunks of ice barreling down swollen rivers.
Nebraska has a regional network of Natural Resource Districts that could direct local money toward flood protection. Like most states, it also budgets money to pay the state’s share of FEMA disaster recovery projects, and the state plans to hire a contractor to help develop a long-term recovery plan.
But until now, the state has not had a coordinated strategy for taking steps to reduce flooding risks, said Bryan Tuma, who leads the daily operations of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Only a few Midwestern states have pumped much of their own money into flood prevention.
Minnesota created a grant program in 1987 that has since awarded almost $525 million to local projects.
After extensive flooding in 2011, Iowa launched a unique program that lets local governments keep a portion of their growth in state sales tax revenue to help finance levees, floodwalls other projects designed to hold back rising waters. The state expects to forgo nearly $600 million of revenue over 20 years to help pay for nearly $1.4 billion of projects in 10 cities. But applications for that program closed several years ago, leading Iowa legislators this year to put $15 million into a separate fund to pay for flood prevention and recovery.
Governors in Missouri and Arkansas both have appointed task forces to examine levee systems. The Missouri budget also includes $2 million for a moveable floodwall in Clarksville, a rural community of about 450 with a 19th century downtown that has been fighting an annual battle against the Mississippi River.
In Arkansas, Rapert began pursuing better levee policies four years ago, after flooding on his farmland along the Arkansas River.
The lawmaker discovered that the nearby levee hadn’t been repaired after a 1990 breach and that its governing board was defunct. So he sponsored a law allowing local officials to re-establish dormant levee boards and requiring annual reports to be sent to the state. Although Rapert’s local levee got fixed, he said most of the districts haven’t filed reports, raising questions about whether their levees are being maintained.
“Until there’s a flood, nobody really cares about levees. But when there’s a flood, everybody’s worried about them,” said Jason Trantina, a farmer and convenience store owner near Conway, Arkansas, who was appointed president of Rapert’s local levee district when it was re-formed.
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