Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on October 26, 2021.

Our Future, Our Floods 

A new report paints a grim picture of flood risk across the US now and over the next 30 years. What can emergency management officials do to address the threat?


Cameron Parish is nestled into the southwestern corner of Louisiana. It’s the third-largest county in the state by area, spanning nearly 2,000 square miles. It’s not hard to see why the county has a history of flooding. Lakes, rivers, and marshland make up about a third of its area, while 75 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico define its southern border. 

When Hurricane Laura slammed into the Louisiana coast in August 2020, it devastated the town of Cameron, the parish seat. Photos from the disaster show entire neighborhoods flooded, schools and roadways underwater, and boats strewn about the town like toys. 

But things could get even worse in the coming years for the approximately 7,000 people who call Cameron Parish home—much worse.

According to a report released in October by First Street Foundation, a New York–based nonprofit that specializes in flood risk research, Cameron Parish is the county most at risk for flood damage across the entire United States. Currently, 107 of the county’s 111 critical infrastructure properties, such as fire stations and hospitals, are at risk of being rendered inoperable from flooding, the report estimates. About 99 percent of Cameron Parish’s residential properties are at risk from flooding, while 98.3 percent of the county’s roads are at risk and all of its commercial, government, and education properties are at risk. 

Cameron Parish isn’t alone. Research predicts that, over the next 30 years, sea levels will rise and stronger storms will occur, significantly boosting the flood risk across the US. Experts say this should serve as a wakeup call to emergency planners, first responders, and elected officials in any community about the importance of preparing for floods, which are the nation’s most frequent and most costly national disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“As we saw following the devastation of Hurricane Ida [in August and September], our nation’s infrastructure is not built to a standard that protects against the level of flood risk we face today, let alone how those risks will grow over the next 30 years,” Matthew Eby, executive director of First Street Foundation, said in a statement. The vision, he said, is for the foundation’s report to “inform where investment dollars should flow in order to best mitigate against that risk.”

While experts say federal funding is essential to help minimize flood damage in the future, they also recognize the value in more localized efforts. Those can include simply raising awareness of the threat, as well as looking to codes and standards from organizations such as NFPA in creating more flood-conscious building regulations.  
Investment, education, & codes  

In flood-prone Louisiana—where, in addition to Cameron Parish, six of the 10 most at-risk counties identified in the First Street Foundation report are located—the wheels are already turning on what can be done to mitigate the flooding hazard of today and tomorrow.

“We have to create a plan to make our buildings more resilient,” said Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning. Fire stations, in particular, are a top concern for Browning. “We want our fire stations not just to be operational for the crews who are tasked with running search-and-rescue operations during floods and other natural disasters, but also to serve as safe havens for people in the community during these times,” he said. In Louisiana, federal funding would be needed for these upgrades to happen, Browning added. 

That’s likely the case elsewhere, too. When flooding from Hurricane Ida damaged a New Jersey fire station in September, the department resorted to setting up an online GoFundMe campaign to cover the repair costs—upgrading the station to be more resilient in the future wasn’t even discussed. As of October, the campaign had only raised $5,300 of its $50,000 goal.

Complicating the situation is evidence to suggest flood-proofing is probably not the first place where money for fire station upgrades would go. An NFPA report released in 2019 found that thousands of US fire stations have needs that are arguably more pressing, at least on a daily basis, than preparing for floods. Of the roughly 50,000 stations across the country, the report found, 59 percent don’t have exhaust emission control systems and 35 percent don’t have backup electricity.


Although Browning sees a need for more federal funding to fully address the threat posed by floods to critical infrastructure like fire stations, he said there are opportunities for more immediate changes to take place at local and state levels. Even educating communities on their flood risk could go a long way toward preparing for these disasters, Browning said. “Public awareness, including among the fire service, is lacking, and that translates to communities being unprepared to mitigate the threat,” he said. 

According to Cindy O’Neal, the Louisiana state coordinator for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a public network of insurance companies managed by FEMA, current building regulations in Louisiana could also be updated to better address the flood risk. At the moment, O’Neal contended, these regulations are too soft on allowing developers to fill in flood-prone areas as opposed to building structures on stilts to meet flood-zone elevation requirements. “We have to start requiring everyone to elevate using pilings or piers,” she said. “Every shovel of dirt that continues to fill the floodplain simply pushes water onto other neighboring properties.” 

NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, prohibits using fill for structural support for “buildings and structures located wholly or partially in flood hazard areas.” The International Building Code (IBC), however, which the Louisiana Building Code is modeled after, only partially prohibits it, saying fill can be used in flood hazard areas in a way that minimizes “shifting, slumping, and erosion” during floods. 

Getting proactive

Some communities are getting creative when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure from flooding. 

In San Francisco, for instance, a two-story, 15,000-square-foot floating fire station is set to open soon on the city’s waterfront. The station, which cost $40 million and was funded by a local bond for earthquake safety, sits on a steel barge and is designed to rise and fall with the tides. The fire department needed a facility that was “resilient to seismic events, flooding, and higher future tide conditions in [San Francisco] Bay,” according to an article published in September in Engineering News Record California. The recent First Street Foundation report found that San Francisco County is expected to see a nearly 6 percent increase in flood risk to its fire stations, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure over the next 30 years.  

Nationwide, the report found that the next three decades will see 1.2 million more residential properties become at risk of being rendered inoperable from flooding; 66,000 more commercial properties; 63,000 more miles of roads; 6,100 more education, government, and other properties the report categorizes as “social”; and 2,000 more critical infrastructure properties.  

“An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed at all levels of government in order to slow the trends identified by this report,” said Meg Galloway, a senior policy advisor at the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). Building codes written to address flood risk must be adopted on state and local levels, she said, and those codes must be written to an “even higher standard” for critical infrastructure like fire stations. 

Resources already exist that could help accomplish some of these goals. 

NFPA 5000, for example, includes an entire chapter dedicated to flood-resistant design and construction, which requires in part that building systems and equipment are positioned so that floodwaters can’t reach them. The requirements in the code, as well as the IBC, mirror the minimum requirements established by the NFIP. 

In January, ASFPM, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, petitioned FEMA to strengthen those NFIP requirements. “Forward-looking construction and land-use standards as well as mapping future conditions provide communities the opportunity to anticipate and reduce flood risk, saving lives and protecting property,” the petition said. FEMA is now accepting public input on the matter. 

Galloway said one major step forward could come by way of the sweeping $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the US Senate approved in August. It calls for investments in transportation infrastructure that would make them more resistant to flooding—projects like raising roads, adding floodgates to tunnel entrances, and building better drainage systems for railways. It would also infuse $3.5 billion over the next five years into FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program, fund infrastructure resilience research, and support programs that champion restoring wetlands and other natural ways to absorb floodwaters. 

“It’s about resilience,” said President Joe Biden, championing the bill as he spoke in a battered LaPlace, Louisiana, following Hurricane Ida. The bill will “make our roads and highways safer [and] make us more resilient to the kinds of devastating impacts from extreme weather we’re seeing in so many parts of the country.”

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor  for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter
@angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES