Planning

WHAT IS FLOOD PLANNING?

Flood planning is the process of developing visions, strategies, and tactics to reduce flooding and its impacts. Planning should be driven by flood-prone communities and involve local leaders familiar with their communities’ needs to build resilience for those who need it most. The most effective plans rely on best available scientific assessments of current and future risk, and encourage projects, programs, and policies that lead to lasting, meaningful change in a community.

WHY IS FLOOD PLANNING IMPORTANT?

States across the country are experiencing increased flooding from more frequent and extreme weather conditions and events. Holistic flood planning helps states put their resources where they’ll be most impactful. Planning provides an actionable, statewide strategy to drive investments and policy across sectors and levels of government. Holistic, comprehensive plans should emphasize vulnerable communities who are disproportionately impacted in flood events, and include tools and metrics that help states carry out the plans and monitor their progress.

STATE FLOOD RESILIENCE AND ADAPTATION PLANNING: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

The State Resilience Partnership, convened by the American Flood Coalition and The Pew Charitable Trusts, commissioned the Urban Institute to conduct first-of-its-kind research on statewide resilience and adaptation planning. The resulting report, State Flood Resilience and Adaptation Planning: Challenges and Opportunities, examines the landscape and trends of statewide resilience plans based on the Urban Institute’s survey of 148 plans and deep dive interviews in five states.

The report finds that most states lack a deliberate or comprehensive approach to address flood hazards. States often rely on FEMA-approved State Hazard Mitigation Plans (SHMP) for statewide flood risk assessment and mitigation activities; however, SHMPs are not robust tools for strategic planning. 

Major state flood planning efforts have historically occurred in response to disasters, rather than on a regular basis that uses forward-looking data. Additionally, state flood planning often relies on federal funds, which may not cover all long-term costs associated with flooding. Lastly, the report finds that most states do not have meaningful public engagement and targeted assistance for low-resourced communities, resulting in inequitable outcomes.

The full report can be read on the Urban Institute website.

THE ROLE OF STATES

States play an essential role as key implementers of flood mitigation activities. State governments are the important links between federal agencies and local governments, coordinating post-disaster response and deciding how to spend mitigation dollars. Additionally, states are well positioned to organize watershed-level approaches to flood planning — a useful scale to assess priorities given that floods ignore jurisdictional boundaries.

STATE FLOOD PLANNING LANDSCAPE

Flood planning is largely underdeveloped at the state level. Most states have not developed a comprehensive and inclusive approach to flood planning, often relying on FEMA-approved State Hazard Mitigation Plans instead. As states become more aware of the risks posed by more frequent and extreme weather events, many have shown interest in more innovative approaches to state flood planning.1


  1. 1. State flood planning should go beyond federal requirements

    Findings

    • All states have FEMA-approved State Hazard Mitigation Plans, but often these summarize a state’s activities and capabilities, and stop short of functioning as a comprehensive, strategic plan.
    • Most of these plans do not meaningfully account for future impacts of sea level rise, heavier precipitation, and changing precipitation patterns. While recent FEMA guidance requires states to acknowledge climate change in their State Hazard Mitigation Plans, most have not yet meaningfully incorporated its effects into their risk analyses and mitigation strategies.
    • As State Hazard Mitigation Plans are a prerequisite for states to access much federal funding, these plans often become a “check the box” exercise for many states, missing the opportunity to undertake holistic strategic planning. 

     

    Recommendations

    1. States should work to integrate their State Hazard Mitigation Plans with other state flood plans and programs.
    2. The federal government can help states by providing expanded technical assistance resources (e.g., regional support teams, direct technical assistance for grant applications, formula funding for staffing).
  2. 2. State flood planning should be built on a foundation of forward-looking climate and demographic data

    Findings

    • Flood risk models based on historic trends fail to provide a true view of a state’s current and future risk. Of the 148 plans reviewed, 32% rely on historical climate and disaster data, without incorporating projections for the future, and 98% did not indicate the inclusion of population growth projections in their risk models. 
    • Not including data on social vulnerabilities will lead to disproportionate and inequitable outcomes when flooding occurs. Frontline communities are often located in floodprone areas, which is frequently a result of discriminatory land use and housing policies and histories of overt segregation. That said, 84% of plans do not, or only minimally, consider how flooding will disproportionately affect socially vulnerable communities.

    Recommendations

    1. States should incorporate probabilistic models that include forward-looking climate projections into risk assessments.
    2. States should incorporate geographic data that includes the locations of projected population growth and where socially vulnerable communities live into risk assessments.
    3. States should prioritize engagement with socially vulnerable communities and establish metrics to account for whether those communities are meaningfully engaged, thoughtfully incorporated into hazard analysis, and have their needs met in mitigation plans.
    4. States should increase data resources, including staff and engineers at the state level, and provide access to these resources at the local level.
  3. 3. State flood planning should support low-resourced communities and incorporate community input

    Findings

    • States lean on local governments to carry out state flood plans, with 82% of plans in the survey identifying counties as responsible for implementation. 
    • Local assistance is particularly important for communities that have been historically and systemically excluded from government aid; however only 39% of plans include specific strategies to assist low-capacity communities. These communities often lack capacity to research and respond to funding opportunities and technical expertise needed to assess and describe flood risks.
    • Just over half (52%) the plans with delineated timeframes were developed in one year or less, which can limit how planners collect data, scope projects, and meaningfully engage with stakeholders. While many states incorporate projects from local plans that did involve community engagement, limiting direct engagement between communities and state planners means local needs may not be fully integrated into state plans. Private citizens, for example, may lack the expertise to comment on technical aspects of plans, but often have lived knowledge to inform the values of a plan.

     

    Recommendations

    1. States should target efforts to ensure low-capacity communities can access state funding and technical assistance opportunities.
    2. States should engage with local communities to tap into lived knowledge of flooding impacts.
    3. States should highlight co-benefits of projects to encourage buy-in and coordination among stakeholders.
    4. States should budget time and funding for meaningful public engagement beyond cursory public comment periods in flood planning processes.
    5. The federal government should encourage and reward comprehensive state planning efforts that prioritize ongoing engagement; states should encourage and reward local jurisdictions developing their own plans that prioritize ongoing engagement with diverse stakeholders and residents.
  4. 4. State flood planning should advance an actionable implementation strategy

    Findings

    • Without a strong strategy to carry out plan projects and initiatives, states run the risk of standing idle and missing their goals. 
    • Despite this, only 17% of reviewed plans identified departments or individual positions responsible for implementation tasks, 26% contained committed funding strategies, and 48% indicated project prioritization.

    Recommendations

    1. State plans should include specific initiatives and actions with concrete details, including project scoping information, goals, timelines, committed funds, and responsible parties, as well as public communication and accountability strategies.
    2. States should incorporate flood-related resilience objectives into daily operations and agency priorities to help ensure implementation.
    3. States should create a prioritized list of specific projects and actions linked to accountable entities and funding sources.
    4. States should use metrics tied to desired strategic outcomes rather than outputs, to track and report progress toward implementation.
    5. States should include processes to evaluate actions taken and make policy and project recommendations for improving future resilience.
  5. 5. State flood planning should mobilize the full force of state government

    Findings

    • State flood planning is often spread across multiple plans and a wide range of departments, offices and agencies. This can lead to different, and sometimes competing, planning principles, time horizons, objectives, and risk projections that fail to account for a state’s full flood risk.
    • Rather than being created and updated on a regular development cycle, many states see a surge of momentum following a disaster only to stagnate when political will and funds dissipate. Without reliable funding and regular planning timelines, communities cannot critically assess goals and values — nor can they ensure quality flood risk assessment, coordination, and public participation.

     

    Recommendations

    1. States should establish a central source for strategic flood planning that identifies values, goals, and outcome indicators to use across all state efforts.
    2. States should establish timelines to regularly update flood plans, rather than just following disasters.
    3. States should identify dedicated funding for flood planning and other hazard mitigation planning, including for continual data collection and analysis.

Click here for a Checklist to help state planners better prepare for flooding and sea level rise: Flood Resilience Checklist for State Planners

STATES IN FOCUS


Colorado

Colorado is one of the few states with a stand-alone flood mitigation plan. This plan works alongside the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan and Colorado Resiliency Framework to address flooding in the state; however, municipalities lead most local flood planning and control key mitigation tools, which shapes how the state can carry out flood resilience policies and programs.

Highlights

  • Colorado can be a model for integrating multiple plans and programs. Since 2004, Colorado has incorporated updates to its flood plan into the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan process; since 2007, the flood plan has aligned with Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 requirements, allowing the plan to function as an official annex to the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan.
  • Colorado’s flood plan mirrors the structure of the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan, using many of the same data sources and analyses. The flood plan, however, adds details needed for effective implementation through priority rankings for recommended actions and an extended risk assessment.

What to watch

  • Colorado has advanced its flood planning by increasing cooperation between departments and agencies and coordinating the development of the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan and the linked flood plan. The state is also incorporating criteria from the Colorado Resiliency Framework into the flood plan and as part of assessment tools for how to spend FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance funds.

Florida

Historically, Florida’s flood planning has been decentralized, happening mostly through water management districts and other regional entities. Newly bolstered state leadership can learn from proactive actors, like the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD); provide a shared statewide vision and source of data; and provide assistance to communities that need greater support.

Highlights

  • Using historical and climate-adjusted data, the SFWMD developed its own models that incorporate land-use change, sea level rise scenarios, and rainfall trends. Current models focus on inland and urban flooding, but efforts are shifting to look at rural and agricultural risk.
  • Florida recently created the position of Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate resilience activities across public, private, and academic sectors. While officially responsible for resilience across all hazards, the position has a heavy emphasis on sea level rise and coastal flooding.

What to Watch

  • In 2021, Florida made two big legislative moves: The state dedicated up to $650 million of its fiscal year budget to resilience planning and infrastructure, and it passed the Always Ready bill, which mandates a statewide flood plan, creates a hub for research, and heavily invests in local planning resources and support.

Iowa

Iowa has adopted advanced risk assessment practices and holistic community engagement through the Iowa Watershed Approach, which is led by the Iowa Flood Center. Under the Iowa Watershed Approach, the Flood Center monitors riverine flooding across the state and provides flood alerts and forecasts to communities. In concert, the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board provides funds to localities submitting proposals for flood mitigation projects.

Highlights

  • The Iowa Watershed Approach is a planning effort that identifies and implements upstream efforts focused on reducing downstream flooding and minimizing environmental impact. Planners directly communicate and engage with landowners and residents to better understand flood concerns and challenges.
  • Iowa helped to organize Watershed Management Authorities in many state watersheds to oversee water management across jurisdictional boundaries, taking a significant step toward building regional governance structures for home-rule states. While these bodies lack the regulatory power of local jurisdictions, they do provide locally tailored but consistent approaches to flood management for areas where they exist.

What to Watch

  • The state government tasks the Iowa Flood Center to produce regulatory maps to submit for approval to FEMA. In addition to these maps, the Flood Center developed a more detailed predictive flood model, combining LiDAR, bathymetry, and river gauge data to create probabilistic flood maps for 2-, 5-, 10-, 25-, 50-, 100-, 200-, and 500-year floods. The Flood Center’s data and analytic tools, which are more advanced than FEMA’s mapping resources, supports Iowa’s communities as they develop their own flood plans.

North Carolina

North Carolina has recently taken steps to create a comprehensive flood planning process. After Hurricane Matthew, the state directed funds to areas that saw extensive destruction and established the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which administers Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds and runs programs to build local capacity for resilience. Renewed state-level leadership in the legislature and Governor’s office, like dedicating $20 million to develop a Flood Resiliency Blueprint, indicates a greater focus on holistic flood planning in the state.

Highlights

  • North Carolina established the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency to administer disaster recovery funds. The office now leads the state’s strategic buyout program, funds affordable housing developments with disaster-resilient features, and invests in resilient infrastructure. In 2020, NCORR established the North Carolina Resilient Communities Program, which provides technical assistance and funds for planning and carrying out strategic resilience projects.
  • North Carolina has advanced several objectives outlined in its Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan and has convened an interagency resilience team, established programs to build local resilience, and incorporated risk assessments into its next Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan.

What to Watch

  • North Carolina’s 2022 budget dedicates $800 million to disaster-related programs, including $20 million to a Flood Resiliency Blueprint. The Blueprint will assess flood risk of the most at-risk watersheds, lay out a statewide plan for projects and funding, and provide communities with information to make decisions, drive investments, and jumpstart projects.

Washington

Washington relies on its Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan to bring together disparate plans, responsible parties, and flood programs — like the state’s Flood Control Assistance Account Program and the Floodplains by Design program — into a comprehensive plan. These programs are central to the state’s flood mitigation strategy, working together to fund flood planning and local implementation.

Highlights

  • In 2021, after a gap of 13 years, the state revived the Flood Control Assistance Account Program, which provides funds and guidance to local jurisdictions undertaking comprehensive flood planning. The program has $1.5 million in funding for flood planning and $150,000 for carrying out emergency flood mitigation projects.
  • Floodplains by Design — a public-private partnership between the Department of Ecology, the Nature Conservancy, and the Puget Sound Partnership — supports programs that integrate ecological preservation and habitat restoration into floodplain management.

What to Watch

  • In 2021, Washington passed the Healthy Environment for All Act, which defines environmental justice in state law and requires the use of a racial justice lens in all agency plans, programs, and enforcement that involve the environment. The law will likely affect future Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan cycles, as well as other state environmental activities. In the 2023 update to the State Hazard Mitigation Plan, planners will integrate social vulnerability data and more rigorous data-driven risk analysis by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

(1) This page summarizes themes in flood planning, including those from the Urban Institute’s report, State Flood Resilience and Adaptation Planning: Challenges and Opportunities. For the perspectives of the Urban Institute, please refer directly to the report itself