The True Cost of Flooding

No matter where your home is, you’re potentially at risk for flooding. Eighty percent of humanity lives within 60 miles of an ocean, and Americans in particular face the problem of water suddenly appearing at their front door.  But how much does flooding really cost us?  And are you safe if you’re not near the coasts?

Let’s take a look at the major flood disasters of 2011 and find out.

2011 Missouri River Floods

States Effected: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas

What Happened:

Record snowfall in the Rockies put incredible strain on dams near the top of the Missouri.  At one point, a record 152,000 cubic feet of water per second was being released through the Garrison Dam.  The Army Corps of Engineers had no choice: it was release the water or break the dam.

Unfortunately, that also meant the flooding ran for months, from June to August.  Eight bridges crossing the Missouri were closed long-term, leaving residents of towns and cities to drive a hundred miles just to get across the bridge.  The floods played havoc with towns and cities: Pierre, South Dakota alone lost $13.5 million in repairs, and just one county in Iowa found itself faced with $40 million dollars in road repairs…before any interstate highways were fixed.

Total Estimated Costs: About $1 to $2 billion.  But it wasn’t the only river that flooded in summer 2011.

2011 Mississippi River Floods

Mississippi River Floods

States Effected: Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

What Happened:

People who don’t live with tornadoes often don’t understand that these disasters aren’t just enormous wind funnels that wreck trailer parks: they’re thunderstorms, and they can lash down enormous amounts of rain.  April 14th, 15th and 16th saw massive storm systems that developed into 178 tornadoes across 16 states.  Less than two weeks later, another severe storm deposited 358 tornadoes from Canada to Texas.  That, combined with the aforementioned record snowmelt, meant states along the Mississippi ran into some of the worst flooding in decades, with the river cresting at record-breaking heights and forcing floods of rural Louisiana to save the larger cities in the state.

Total Estimated Costs: $2 to $3 billion, as a conservative estimate, but insurance reports are still rolling in and it’s unclear how much future damage might be reported.

Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene

States Effected: Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.  Yes, you read that correctly: Irene caused flooding in 15 states.

What Happened:

Irene was a bad storm, pure and simple.  It made landfall on the US no fewer than nine times, and even though it was “just” a Category 1 hurricane, and even downgraded to a tropical storm, it still poured record-breaking amounts of water on just about every state it touched.

The worst affected, though, was the small state of Vermont.  Almost every single river and stream in the entire state flooded, in some places to record levels, causing nearly $1 billion in damage to Vermont alone.

Total Estimated Costs: At least $7 billion in damages were caused by Irene, although ironically, that was actually a lot better than what people were expecting.

Tropical Storm Lee

Tropical Storm Lee

States Effected: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland

What Happened:

2011 wasn’t just a bad year for tornadoes and river floods: it was a bad year for hurricanes.  But Lee, striking in September, was among the worst.

The problem was that Lee, even though it was just a tropical storm, was extremely slow-moving and very, very heavy with rain, so the storm system would dump huge amounts of rain on areas for days.  Ironically, the southernmost states, which were used to hurricanes, handled the flooding much better than states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia, which aren’t used to such extreme weather. Those same southern states, however, already had their resources taxed by the Missouri and Mississippi floods.

In short, Lee hit at the worst possible time for states still recovering from Irene, which had struck just a week or so earlier.

Total Estimated Costs: Up to $1.6 billion across all states from Lee alone.  Combined with Irene’s effects, the total cost may be much higher.

Souris River and Red River Floods

Souris River and Red River Floods

States Effected: North Dakota and Minnesota

What Happened:

The Red River, which runs between the US and Canada, simply had too much water: thanks to record precipitation, the soil had simply absorbed more water than it could handle, dumping the excess into the river.  It caused massive damage, although thankfully, flooding levels were well below the record for most areas.

Unfortunately, records were being broken elsewhere.  Meanwhile, due to snowpack and torrential rains, the Souris River overflowed and the town of Minot, North Dakota was essentially wiped off the map from flooding.  As bad as North Dakota had it, though, our neighbors to the north had it worse, as Seskatchewan and Manitoba were pounded by flooding that submerged entire towns.

Total Estimated Costs: The Souris caused at least $200 million, $100 million of it in Minot alone.  The Red River will likely cost $250 in the US and even more in Canada.

So What Can We Learn?

All told, 2011 cost us $12 billion in flooding damage, and that’s a conservative estimate.  It’s worth noting that the states that took the most flooding damage were nowhere close to an ocean: North Dakota, Vermont, and Missouri racked up easily $1 billion or more in damages, and that was without any tsunamis or waves.

The lesson we can take away from this is that flooding isn’t limited to states with big rivers or states with an ocean beach.  Flooding can happen to any state in the Union under the right conditions.  So, think ahead and be safe with the following tips:

- Purchase flood insurance.  Don’t take it for granted that flood insurance comes with your homeowner’s policy: it often doesn’t.  Pay a little extra to keep your home safe.

- Help make your home more flood resistant.  There’s no way to absolutely flood-proof a home, but doing certain home improvement projects now, like reinforcing the foundation, installing a pump, or regularly checking gutters can save you money and grief in the long run.

- Keep an ear out for weather reports.  If flooding is predicted for your area, know where to go, what to bring, and when to evacuate.

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