Watching the news and seeing residents of Baton Rouge clean up debris after devastating floods wiped out their homes and neighborhoods in August paints a distressing picture. Flood events like these are happening all over the world and are increasing in frequency. Since 1990, there’s been a five percent increase in the number of storms in the U.S. causing at least $1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As we watch the devastation unfold, we are aware that the increase in frequency means the next storm is likely right around the corner. Often we are still working to recover from one storm when the next is on the horizon.
In October 2015, South Carolina residents experienced an all-too similar tragedy. Now, almost a year later, some affected residents are just starting to get back on their feet. Together with Aon and ISET-International, Zurich today released a post-event review on the floods that took the lives of 19 people in South Carolina. The economic loss from the floods was substantial—an estimated $12 billion in total losses with approximately $2 billion in insured and other funded losses. The devastation followed historic rainfall in the Carolinas, an area that has often faced catastrophic floods in the past. These devastating floods, like all disasters, test our resilience and readiness to deal with similar situations in the future.
Zurich Insurance Group is studying disasters to find ways to help build community resilience. Through our global flood resilience program, we have invested more than $50 million in community resilience. As part of our program, we set up the Zurich flood resilience alliance, whose members include organizations that share a common vision of enhancing communities' well-being by making them more resilient to floods. Together with other members of our alliance, we have developed a flood resilience measurement framework. The framework forms the basis for the assessment used in the South Carolina report called Post-Event Review Capability (PERC). The PERC takes a consistent, analytical approach to uncovering the root causes of a disaster.
To gain insights for the report, a team of scientists spent time in South Carolina interviewing a number of people with direct knowledge of the event, including those in the communities affected by the floods. While 22 counties were declared federal disaster areas, the report focuses on flooding in Columbia and Charleston. These cities are located in different types of flood risk environments, with Columbia inland and Charleston on the coast. The report shows how the same storm can unfold very differently across locations.
We’re helping find ways to make the aftermath less severe the next time a flood strikes a community, or even help avoid the next flood from ever becoming a disaster. The lessons and recommendations found in the South Carolina report can be applied to many other communities exposed to flood risk. Here are the top eight findings:
- Build back better – In the aftermath of a disaster, recovery efforts should be carried out in ways designed to enhance resilience, not just to build back to the status before the disaster.
- Address misconceptions about flood risk – Some people wrongly believe that a rainfall or flooding considered a “1,000-year” event may reoccur only after 999 years have passed, but that categorization does not indicate actual frequency of such an event.
- Increase personal awareness and responsibility – New arrivals may not be aware of a city’s history and the flood risk that goes with living in particular neighborhoods.
- Let people take the initiative – Many people affected by events have the capacity to help themselves and others.
- Address problems related to dams – Dams need to be regularly assessed for flood risk to downstream communities.
- Review the damage assessment process – Inspectors who are local to the area and experienced in damage assessment of home construction would help alleviate some frustration felt by people affected by floods.
- Make buyouts strategic – Use federal disaster recovery funds to buy out high-risk properties and convert the land to open space.
- Review insurance penetration and accessibility – Engage governments and policymakers on ways to increase the purchase of flood-related insurance.
The findings of the report show us that we can learn from the experiences and knowledge gained from South Carolina to help prevent future floods from becoming disasters. Click here to read the report