The Madness of Building in Flood-Prone Areas

Flooding in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: The Virginia Severe Weather Page.

My skepticism of Global Warming alarmism is well documented on this blog. But being skeptical of chicken-little, the-world-is-going-to-end hysteria is very different from being skeptical of the fact that global temperatures are rising and so is the sea level along with it.  We can argue how rapidly sea levels are rising but not the fact that they are rising. Anyone who denies that fact out of a blind ideological reaction against GW alarmism is committing a grave and costly mistake.

As sea levels rise, whether due to higher global temperature or subsidence of the East Coast tectonic plate, flooding is becoming worse. As flooding becomes worse, insurance companies — who are not motivated by ideology — charge more for flood insurance. Writes Scientific American in its August issue:

Major insurance companies like Allstate, Nationwide, and State Farm have quietly stopped writing new policies in many zones near shore, says Wetlands Watch. Most of Norfolk’s waterfront lies in areas that the Federal Emergency Management Agency designates as 100-year flood zones – i.e., that have a one percent chance of flooding yearly [PDF]. Owners there can buy coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program.

Meanwhile, local governments are giving serious thought to the implications of rising sea levels. According to Scientific American: “Norfolk is spending more than $27 million this year on culverts, restored shorelines and street curbs to channel water and improve drainage. … Studies commissioned by the city have recommended more than $140 million in larger projects for just four neighborhoods, including floodgates and pumping systems. ”

Here’s my question. If flooding is demonstrably getting worse — for whatever reason — why is the federal government subsidizing property owners who want to build in flood-prone areas? This is madness! If flooding is demonstrably getting worse, why aren’t local governments in Hampton Roads “blue lining” flood-prone areas where they will no longer invest in building new infrastructure?

Surely environmentalists and free-market conservatives can unite to oppose insanely wasteful public- and private-sector investment in areas that will  become only more vulnerable to flooding over time.


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  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Does the James River ever flood in or around Richmond?

  2. Yes. That’s why the City built the flood wall. It’s made a huge difference to stimulating the re-development of Shockoe Bottom. (Another good example, by the way, of something that government and only government can do.)

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      How did the rich developers of Shockoe Bottom pay back the city for its expenditure on the flood wall? Is there a special tax district? If the wall breaks (as they did in New Orleans) will the landowners be insured? With whom is the risk of being insured against floods while residing next to a sea wall during times of rising seal levels being shared?

      I hope you guys aren’t copying the evil approach used by the “wealthy Tyson’s landowners”.

      1. It was federal money. In an ideal world, the city should have floated bonds and paid for the floodwall itself… perhaps supported by a special tax district. But the city fathers would have been fools not to take money that Uncle Sam was handing out.

        As for floods, the flood wall failed one time during a hurricane. So much rain water was dumped that it backed up faster than it could be sluiced out, and flooded a lot of businesses. The businesses should pay for their own insurance, and that insurance should not be subsidized.

  3. turns out that the Army Corp is the VDOT of the flood wall world!

  4. I think you’ll find that much of the sea shore properties at places like Nags Head would plummet in value if the Feds pulled out of the subsidized flood insurance business.

    The State of North Carolina is thinking hard about the wisdom of building more bridges to that area.

    But people are stubborn in their beliefs and are helped along in those beliefs when the Feds subsidized the insurance and the irony is thick because quite a few of those properties are owned by GOP-leaning folks who never see themselves as living off the dole even when they are.

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