Are You Ready for Flood Season?

May 23, 2017

TipSheet: Are You Ready for Flood Season?

Serious floods are always news — especially when and where they are happening. But today, floods have gotten more pernicious and raise issues way beyond the immediate evacuation. So like other first responders, reporters need to be ready.

Journalist Erika Bolstad reported the recent Mississippi River floods from Alton, Ill., for ClimateWire, not only their impact on the local economy deep in Trump country, but also from the angle of climate change.

"We're now living in a world of extremes on the Mississippi River," Alton Mayor Brant Walker told Bolstad. "We just don't get normal spring rains anymore. We get huge downpours."

Flood season will soon come to a lot of other places, if it hasn’t already (some people say flood season has become a year-round thing). Journalists may want to have some basic sources and tools ready. Here are a few to keep handy:

  • Local weather service. NOAA’s National Weather Service has a network of offices that give local precipitation forecasts. Find their websites, subscribe to their alerts and have their phone numbers handy. Same for commercial services like AccuWeather and Weather Channel.
  • Streamflow forecasts. The National Weather Service also offers good streamflow forecasts, via a network of gauges and forecast centers. More info on the models behind the forecasts is here. There is also a network of U.S. Geological Survey gauges, which are good for real-time information. Longer-term outlooks incorporating snowpack and reservoir storage are available from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
  • Local dam and levee conditions. If you or your audience live downstream of a major dam, you want to know what the chances are it will fail in a major flood — and how to find out and what to do. More than two dozen dams failed in South Carolina in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew. Find out more about dams near you in this SEJ Toolbox. The raised earth flood-control structures known as levees do a lot to prevent flooding — and make it worse when they fail. Are yours well-engineered and maintained? A fraction of these are in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers database. Check out others via your state water engineer or local levee district.
  • Emergency management agencies. Find your state and local emergency management agencies and establish points of contact with them. There are lists of state agency contacts, and your local ones probably derive from city and county fire and police departments.
  • Federal and other agencies. If things get bad enough, you will want to talk to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, especially about disaster declarations and relief aid. It is also good to be in touch with private-sector agencies like the American Red Cross.

Personal safety first

Journalists will do well to take care of their own personal safety while covering floods — because they will not be able to file a story if they are injured or killed. A guide from Reporters Without Borders offers some things to consider. Remember that floods kill many people who merely drive into water. Use common sense. Drink only safe water.  Obey instructions from emergency responders.

Home damaged by flooding in Jamestown, Colo., in 2013
Flooding damaged 18,000 homes and destroyed 1,500, including this one, in Jamestown, Colo., in 2013. Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Flickr Creative Commons

Many journalists keep kit-bags with the essentials for when all kinds of alarms send them out on a moment’s notice. Remember water, non-perishable food like energy bars, cameras and recorders, portable police scanner, extra batteries, pencils (write better wet), pens and paper, storage media, cash, IDs and credentials, sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, sunglasses, umbrella and raingear … and maybe boots.

Somewhere, your local agencies probably have some plans for dealing with disasters like floods. Find them ahead of time. Know where people will be taken for shelter when they are evacuated. Know how emergency agencies will notify people of impending floods and evacuations. You might want to get a portable NOAA weather radio. And some counties will send you emergency text alerts.

Keep an eye on longer-term angles

You don’t need a flood to write about floods (try explaining that to an editor). Some aspects of flood disasters are chronic and predictable. Better awareness can mitigate them. You can write about these angles ahead of time. Here are a few to be aware of:

  • Floodplain development. When streams overflow, the water usually goes into a floodplain. Of course, the area flooded will depend on the amount of water, but floodplains are pretty well mapped. Often, floodplains are left for uninhabited uses like parks. The problems start when people build houses and commercial buildings in them. Or don’t elevate or flood-proof them.  What does your local zoning say about building in floodplains? What about structures built before zoning took effect?
  • Flood insurance. This is an important topic if you live in a flood-prone area — and too large a topic to do more than hint at here. FEMA runs the National Flood Insurance Program. Localities can qualify for NFIP coverage if they take steps to keep new construction out of floodplains. Is your community covered? The NFIP works through private insurance companies, but subsidizes the insurance — and this leaves the program in the red. One good thing about the NFIP is the publicly available flood hazard mapping, a handy resource for local stories, although be aware of controversies over updating the maps, which don’t account for climate change.
  • Infrastructure. Often the major consequences of floods include infrastructure. Bridges get knocked out and roads are partly destroyed. Electric lines and pipelines get damaged with serious consequences. Very often drinking water and sewage treatment plants are in the floodplain, and can be knocked out by floods. Do your local agencies plan effectively for these problems?
  • Pollution. Stormwater creates pollution problems even short of disastrous floods — which just make it worse. Especially with combined storm-sanitary systems, heavy rains may necessitate discharge of raw or partly treated sewage into water bodies. Floods may cause feedlots and livestock farms to discharge manure into streams. Electric power plants are often located near rivers to meet transportation and cooling needs — and so are their coal-ash disposal sites, which can pollute if breached. Floods can cause many other kinds of incidental water pollution, whether from city streets or industrial facilities.
  • Stormwater management. Even when floods are not severe, better stormwater management can alleviate pollution problems. It can also alleviate more severe floods. There is a good year-round environmental story in local efforts to delay the movement of stormwater into treatment plants and water bodies. Does your community have “green infrastructure” to slow runoff?
  • Coastal flooding and storm surge. Coastal flooding is different than inland flooding, but also bad. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 taught this lesson in New York and New Jersey. Big storms can cause huge storm surges in coastal areas, and the surges may be amplified by the way land is shaped. Large tropical storms, like hurricanes, bring not only huge rains inland, but also storm surges on the coast. When big waves are added, devastation results. How is your community responding to coastal flooding threats?
  • Climate. Man-made climate change will cause increased precipitation in some areas, and alter the timing of seasonal runoff in others. Not everywhere, of course. But the accelerating pace of climate change is definitely making some flooding worse, scientists say. The causes may be complex, but the results are tangible. Witness the unprecedented rains that dropped on the Baton Rouge, La., area in August 2016. Climate is also a suspect in recent heavy rains in California, and the deadly floods this year in Peru.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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