Louisiana schools face a variety of challenges, from maintaining discipline to improving test scores. Increasingly, they face another challenge: natural disasters, particularly flooding.
According to new research by the Pew Charitable Trust, public schools throughout the United States face significant flood risks. Of the slightly less than 100,000 public schools in the United States, more than 6,000 are located in a flood zone, while another 12,500 are located in areas where no digital flood map is available.
While at-risk schools are spread throughout the nation, the highest concentration of public schools in flood zones is in Louisiana. Of the 100 counties with the highest flood risk, 24 are in Pelican State. Counties on the list include not only coastal areas but also inland counties such as Ouachita and Caldwell Parishes. This will come as no surprise to Louisianans, who hardly need to be told how damaging flooding can be.
Public schools can be particularly vulnerable to flooding. Public buildings are often exempt from general building codes and other safety requirements. Flood damage can render facilities uninhabitable, upending educational planning. And, of course, the public is on the hook for repairing flooded school buildings and other facilities. In 2016, flooding in West Virginia caused $130 million in damages to local schools. Unless we are prepared, the fiscal consequences of a flood can be a second disaster comparable to the first.
At the same time, the risk to public schools from flooding is just one example of a larger issue. Flooding has caused more than $260 billion worth of damage in the United States since 1980, and is the both the most common and most costly type of natural disaster in America. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan indicates that, unless action is taken to mitigate coastal risk and reduce coastal land loss, Louisiana will suffer between $7.7 billion and $23.4 billion in annual flood damages over the next 50 years.
While we don’t know exactly when and where a flood will occur, in many cases we have a pretty good idea what the overall risk picture will be. We can and should take steps ahead of time to limit the damage. Every $1 spent on disaster mitigation saves $4 on post-disaster recovery and rebuilding.
There are a variety of risk-mitigation strategies that Louisiana and the nation in general could take to better protect itself. The state could invest in levees and other flood-mitigation infrastructure. At the federal level, better mapping could help school districts decide where to place new facilities. The state and federal government could also look at ways to preserve wetlands, marshes and other areas that offer natural protection against flooding by absorbing storm surge.
Flood preparedness should also involve broader changes to the way we provide flood insurance. The current National Flood Insurance Program is fiscally unsustainable, with nearly $25 billion in debt to federal taxpayers. The NFIP also has encouraged more development in risky areas through a lack of risk-based rates. Current legislation sponsored in the House by Reps. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., and Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and in the Senate by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., would allow consumers more options to choose private flood insurance rather than relying on the federal program. While public school districts are not required to maintain flood insurance and most choose not to do so, a more vibrant private flood insurance market would offer localities more options if they wanted to manage their risk through insurance.
The important thing is to be prepared for what’s coming. Ignoring flood risks won’t make them go away, but it will make dealing with them far more costly when the time comes.
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