September 6, 2020

PennFuture Op Ed in the Morning Call

The following appeared in the Sept. 6 edition of the Morning Call: 

Your View: How flooding disproportionately hurts Lehigh Valley’s minority communities

Climate change will intensify flood risks across the Lehigh Valley. It will be our most disadvantaged residents — in many cases, predominantly people of color — whose homes and families will be caught in harm’s way.

Tropical Storm Isaias served as a wake-up call for my own family.

As the storm tore through the region, my brother Raymond quickly found himself caught in floodwaters along Allentown’s Basin Street. His 2007 Jeep Commander stranded and destroyed, he fortunately escaped safely.

Unfortunately, heavy storms like Isaias will become more frequent. The Lehigh Valley is terribly unprepared.

Our communities continue to suffer from inadequate flood-prevention infrastructure. Our governmental agencies continue to underestimate flood risks. Natural solutions that can protect us from climate-related natural hazards continue to remain underfunded.

The Lehigh Valley is the fastest-warming region of Pennsylvania. Future generations will be living in an Allentown with a climate more closely resembling present-day Arkansas — wetter and warmer.

Much of the aging infrastructure that should protect our communities from more-intense storms needs to be repaired, replaced or expanded. The American Society of Civil Engineers has scored Pennsylvania’s overall stormwater infrastructure with a D.

Clearly, we are failing to take the climate crisis seriously.

In 2018, officials from the region’s 62 municipalities collaborated to address these concerns. The Lehigh Valley Hazard Mitigation Plan recognizes flooding as the most significant natural disaster threat to our region. More than 37 square miles of the Lehigh Valley (5%) lie within a floodplain at risk for a 100-year flood, according to the report, threatening more than 12,000 residents.

Yet this estimate relies upon Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance maps that fail to consider future impacts of a warmer world. Flood models produced by the First Street Foundation, compiling various peer-reviewed research, offer perhaps a more accurate picture of the widespread flooding to come.

In Allentown, the hazard mitigation plan estimates 1,034 residents are vulnerable to a 100-year flood. The First Street model suggests flooding should actually be a concern for 5,486 residents.

Underestimation of flood risks affects the entire region. While FEMA considers only 366 and 282 residents at risk in Bethlehem and Easton, respectively, First Street suggests the true numbers may exceed 4,725 and 2,300 people.

Meanwhile, areas more susceptible to flooding — such as Center City Allentown, West Easton or Fountain Hill — are majority-minority communities.

Residents at greatest risk are often those who are least able to rebuild after a disaster. All too often, low-income residents in flood zones are unable to qualify for mortgages and instead choose to rent. Whereas mortgage holders have to purchase flood insurance, renters are faced with an option. Many choose not to purchase insurance due to FEMA’s high premiums.

Allentown and Easton have enacted sensible stormwater fees, raising necessary funds to overhaul outdated systems. In Bethlehem, a much-needed fee will soon raise money for new stormwater-management projects. A recent Bethlehem Township study suggests the cost of flood-prevention capital improvements would total $12 million to $18 million.

The cost of climate disaster preparation must not fall disproportionately on under-resourced communities.

Instead, greater federal action is needed. For example, the National Wildlife Federation recently proposed in its Natural Climate Solutions Policy Platform the creation of a federal Resilient Communities Revolving Loan Fund and Grant Program. The revolving fund would offer low- or zero-interest loans as well as grants for low-income communities, helping our local governments better prepare for the long-term risk of natural disasters.

Additionally, FEMA should proactively help to prevent flood damage in the most susceptible and vulnerable floodplains. The 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act gave FEMA the authority to set aside 6% of disaster grants for predisaster assistance. This option needs to be acted upon — or become a requirement — before the next storm.

Let’s stop treating weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias or Hurricane Sandy as some unavoidable acts of God. We need to build new infrastructure and we need to enact more appropriate flood-management policies.

Climate change is a growing danger for the Lehigh Valley. Other families should not have to experience my brother’s terrifying ordeal before recognizing these threats are real. The costs of inaction will be tragic.

Maria Ocasio is the Lehigh Valley field coordinator for PennFuture.