How government decisions left Tennessee exposed to deadly flooding

The floods that killed at least 20 people in Tennessee last weekend came with shocking speed and force – apparently a case study of the ...


The floods that killed at least 20 people in Tennessee last weekend came with shocking speed and force – apparently a case study of the difficulties in protecting people from explosive torrential rains as climate change s ‘worsen.

A closer look at what happened in the days, years and even decades before the storm reveals that a series of government decisions – where and how to build, when to update flood maps, if Adhering to the Federal Flood Insurance Program and How to Warn of Dangerous Floods – have left residents more exposed to flooding than they needed to be.

Record-breaking precipitation, sometimes exceeding three inches per hour, swelled rivers and streams in Middle Tennessee on Saturday, destroying homes, cutting off electricity and cell phone service and washing away bridges. Among the dead are 7-month-old twins, a 15-year-old girl and an army veteran who died after helping his wife and daughter escape.

It is impossible to say if a single action could have prevented these deaths, especially given the ferocity of the floods. But interviews with climate and disaster experts and a review of state and federal data show how long governments have been slow to adapt to growing threats and failed to take action that together could have reduce damage.

“These extreme weather events will become more intense and more frequent,” said Hiba Baroud, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who specializes in resilience. “We need to be more proactive and think about ways to prevent or at least mitigate the impact of these events. “

The story of the disaster in Humphreys County, the hardest-hit region of the state, arguably begins in the late 1970s, when the federal government began offering a deal to communities across the country: if they agreed to take basic precautions to limit flood damage, the government would let residents of these communities purchase state-subsidized flood insurance.

Most cities and counties said yes. But not all. Humphreys County declined to participate, federal archives show. So was neighboring Houston County, which was also affected over the weekend. (Some towns in these counties, such as Waverly, which was hit hardest by the flooding, are participating in the program.)

A Humphreys County spokeswoman said officials were not available for comment. But in general, communities that decide to stay out of the flood insurance program usually do so because of an aversion to building restrictions, according to Roy Wright, who led the program until 2018.

Failure to participate in the flood insurance program harms communities in several ways, according to Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. This means that people cannot buy flood insurance, which makes it harder to rebuild after a flood. And that prevents people from getting certain types of disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While Humphreys County officials rejected the federal government’s offer of flood insurance, they were shaping the county’s future in another way: by refusing to adopt residential building codes.

These codes govern how houses are to be built, to make them more likely to withstand natural disasters and other dangers. For example, Nashville, where catastrophic flooding in 2010 displaced thousands of people, requires that the ground floors of new homes be built at least four feet above the expected height of a major flood, one of the most stringent requirements in the country.

But Humphreys County, despite being only 70 miles west of Nashville and under a similar threat from flash floods, does not have a building code, according to state data. Nor does Houston County, along with some three dozen other counties in Tennessee. (As with flood insurance, some cities in these counties have their own codes.)

This difference is possible because of a decision by Tennessee lawmakers to avoid imposing rules on local governments. While most states adopt a building code and make that code mandatory for all their cities and counties, Tennessee leaves it up to local governments to decide whether to follow state rules, make their own rules, or not. have none.

“Any type of standard or code is meant to protect the public,” said Norma Jean Mattei, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and professor at the University of New Orleans. “It really is a matter of public safety.”

In Houston County, Mayor James Bridges said he would like to have a building code. But he said there was not enough tax revenue to pay staff to manage and enforce these rules.

“With 8,000 people and a very small tax base, we just don’t have the money to have all of these different departments that they have in big cities,” Bridges said. “We have so many other needs.

As homes were under construction in Humphreys County without a building code, the county’s ability to prepare for flooding was also affected by a decision from Washington.

FEMA produces maps showing areas at risk for flooding, so homeowners, builders and local officials can make informed decisions about where and how to build homes. Federal law requires the agency to review its flood maps at least once every five years and update them if necessary.

But the Humphreys County map has not been updated since 2009, according to FEMA data. Hickman County, which is southeast of Humphreys and has also been inundated, has not updated its map since 2008.

In addition to the fact that the maps are out of date, the methodology used by these FEMA maps underestimated the extent of flood risk facing the region, according to calculations by the First Street Foundation, a group of academics and experts who published their own estimates last year, which Realtor.com uses to educate homebuyers about flood risk.

FEMA flood maps show that only 781 properties in Humphreys County are at risk from a so-called 100-year flood, or 6.2% of all properties. First Street estimates the number to be more than three times as high.

In other counties affected by flooding last weekend, the gap is even greater. The number of properties at risk of flooding in Hickman County, according to First Street data, is five times higher than FEMA maps show. In Dickson County, the number is 10 times higher.

This difference reflects the fact that FEMA maps examine the threat of flooding from major river channels but do not address the risks associated with small streams and tributaries, according to Jeremy Porter, a professor at the City University of New York and head of the department. research and development. for the first street. “All of the small tributaries and streams that have been submerged by precipitation runoff are not currently mapped in this region,” said Dr Porter.

FEMA spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said the agency prioritized which areas to update first, and it was up to local authorities to research new maps. Humphreys and Hickman counties “have not made requests for map updates,” she said. Ms Rothenberg said the contrasting flood maps developed by FEMA and First Street were “different tools for different intended uses.”

In the afternoon of Friday, August 20, as meteorologists in central Tennessee began to predict increased rain overnight in Humphreys County – which has no building codes, no insurance against flooding and outdated flood maps – there was one big decision left: when and how to notify people.

At 4:55 p.m., the Nashville office of the National Weather Service asked local TV and radio stations to warn people that in addition to the heavy rains of the previous days, that night could add an additional 2-4 inches. .

“Higher amounts may be possible”, the message says. “Be prepared to take action if flash flood warnings are issued. He didn’t say what steps people should be prepared to take.

At 6:09 am the next morning, the weather service began sending warnings directly to cell phones. “A FLASH FLOOD WARNING is in effect for this area,” reads this message. “Do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area prone to flooding or under an evacuation order.”

But by the time those first messages started hitting people’s phones, there was little time to react. “They got the notification on their phone around the same time the water was at their doorstep,” said Dale Popp, Houston County director of emergency management.

The National Weather Service warnings should have been issued before the flooding began, according to Sarah Tuneberg, an emergency manager who started a business called Geospiza that helps local governments protect people in the event of a disaster. And she said those warnings should have given people specific instructions on whether to leave their homes.

Krissy Hurley, the meteorologist in charge of coordinating warnings for the National Weather Service in Nashville, said his office decided to alert people to avoid travel once he received reports of flooding on the roads. She said the agency was reluctant to send alerts too early.

“If you did it before it started to rain, people are going to be really annoyed with you,” Ms. Hurley said.

And her office does not have the authority to customize the wording of those alerts, said Ms. Hurley, which she said were standard messages accepted by the National Weather Service and FEMA.

In Waverly, Linda Ragsdale saw the warnings. But, as she remembered, the alerts were vague and generic, warning that there could be flooding in average Tennessee.

She had no idea that she would end up crawling into her attic with her dog, her meds and her cell phone, waiting for hours as she heard wood in her house moan and crack.

Her son called her early on Saturday morning, asking if she had had any water. “You could see puddles in people’s gardens,” she said. “That’s all.”

Around 8:30 a.m., she got up and looked again. The thrust filled her heart. The water, she said, was “quick and quick, and I didn’t have time to get to my car.”

Several meters of water rushed into his house. It was emptied. She also lost her car. She said she didn’t have flood insurance, nor did anyone else on her street.

“I don’t know what I could have done,” Ms. Ragsdale added. “It happened so fast. It was too fast.”

Rick rojas and Jamie McGee contributed reports.

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