Critical infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding from climate change—why it’s not just coastal cities at risk

When we think about flooding, it's usually in coastal towns and cities, or places right next to large rivers. Taking into account rising sea levels and severe weather events, a non-profit research group assessed the flood danger to infrastructure in the US over the next thirty years—and their findings may surprise you. Matthew Eby, Executive Director of the First Street Foundation, joins to explain.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As the climate summit gets underway in Scotland tomorrow, the Biden administration's infrastructure spending plan is still on hold. Now, a recent report has new warnings about the risk to U.S. infrastructure from flooding. As extreme weather events due to climate change increase.

    Taking into account rising sea levels and severe precipitation events, a non-profit research group created a data-driven mapping project to assess the flood danger in the u.S. Over the next thirty years–and some of the places in the crosshairs are surprising. I recently spoke with Matthew Eby, Executive Director of the First Street Foundation.

    Matthew, when we think about flooding, we usually think about towns and cities that are right next to big rivers or right on the coast. When you looked across all the infrastructure that's at risk, what did you find?

  • Matthew Eby:

    Well, it's a really interesting result that we found is that the places that you would normally think that have a lot of risk as you're mentioning, you know, the Floridas, the Louisianas, the Texas. Those places actually still have a lot of risk. There's a lot of critical infrastructure at risk. But the surprising part that we found is there's a lot of alluvial flooding or precipitation flooding that sees the middle of America have a lot of risk.

    So places like West Virginia, which you wouldn't think about as being a big flood area, has a significant amount of critical infrastructure that has inoperable risk, meaning that if the floodwaters make it to the building, it would render things inoperable. Police stations, hospitals, those things that are critical to the community, but also things that you wouldn't necessarily think about right away. But you can see from news stories that they actually are impacted in a big way like utilities. So, Ida went through and knocked out, didn't really flood a lot of areas in Louisiana that were impacted areas, but the big story was that the utility was knocked off and that it wasn't able to operate for the area.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You're coming out with this report in a year where I want to say we've had, I think, $18 billion-plus sort of weather events. What is the cost if we were able to write a blank check and mitigate this, fix this, move some of these places? How much would that cost?

  • Matthew Eby:

    Hari, I think that's the problem is that we don't have the data to actually know this is the first time that a report like this has come out where it doesn't just look at what is the current risk, but how this risk will evolve over the next 30 years. This is the first time we're actually getting a look of just one peril, flooding, let alone a wildfire or heat and drought and the other things that impact communities as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, one of the things that occurred to me was that I hadn't seen all of it pulled together in one place. I mean, where did you find all of this information and how hard was it to kind of staple together into one map?

  • Matthew Eby:

    So our company is a nonprofit that's been working at this for about five years now, so we started by building the flood model itself and understanding where is risk across the country. And we did that in a peer-reviewed open-source manner so that all the scientists could contribute with us to actually get to that level of understanding. We adjusted it into the future based on the climate change scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    And then lastly, what we've been able to do now is take all of the different types of buildings across the country and look at them individually. So those are residential properties, commercial properties, segments of roads. When you think of flood risk, you don't necessarily think of roads. But when you think of trying to get out of an area, when there is an emergency or where you're actually driving in and out of a community each year, each day, you know, those are places that have a lot of risk as well. And then the last two dimensions we looked at were social infrastructure and critical infrastructure. And so across those five dimensions, now we're able to pull all of this data together and tell a story for each individual community to understand what risk looks like today and how it will change across those dimensions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Matthew Eby:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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