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Report proposes policy recommendations to increase flood resilience in Appalachia

The Northshore riverwalk outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh is flooded by the overflowing Allegheny River Wednesday, April 3, 2024.
Gene J. Puskar
The Northshore riverwalk outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh is flooded by the overflowing Allegheny River Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

Nearly 20 federally-declared flooding disasters hit Appalachia over the last decade, claiming at least 230 lives and requiring $1 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to a recent report by the community development nonprofit ReImagine Appalachia.

The report highlights that rainfall in Appalachia is increasing in frequency and intensity, and that the region is vulnerable because human activity has reduced the land’s ability to retain water.

Daniel Bain, an associate professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Pittsburgh, explained that increases in rainfall will continue.

“It seems like the rainfall is going to be more clustered and more intense,” Bain said. “We might have similar patterns of rain, but when it rains it's going to pour –– and that can really strain our natural systems.”

On top of environmental risks, many local governments lack the resources to prevent and respond to floods. The report suggests that FEMA public assistance money should be structured differently for disadvantaged communities by reducing local match requirements and increasing funding for programs that improve local training and infrastructure.

Bain said outdated infrastructure can exacerbate flooding and make preventative resources like flood mapping less effective.

“Flood mapping is all based on everything working, and one of the challenges that we have is that some of our culvert systems –– the pipes that let water flow under the road –– were probably built before flood mapping,” Bain said. “And so when those things get clogged, they make the flooding worse.”

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The report also points out that federal investments in flood mapping have not kept pace with increasing climate impacts; thousands of communities lack maps, and about 15% of community flood maps are over 15 years old. According to FEMA, nearly a third of flood damage occurs outside of FEMA-designated flood zones.

Low-income households are especially at risk, since they typically receive less financial assistance from FEMA in the event of a disaster. Dana Kuhnline, a senior program director with ReImagine Appalachia, pointed out that low-income families are also more likely to live on land prone to flooding because higher land is often more expensive.

Kuhnline and ReImagine Appalachia push for nature-based solutions to address flooding, as these strategies utilize a holistic approach to land management designed not only to help prevent flooding, but also to promote both more sustainable agricultural systems and economic growth.

“Anything where you're creating infrastructure, or reclaiming lands, can be done [with a] union; it can be done with apprenticeship and training opportunities to bring folks who've been left out of the workforce back into the workforce,” Kuhnline said.

Kuhnline added that some of the most impactful investments in flood resilience and sustainable agriculture are inexpensive, especially when compared to the economic losses Appalachian communities have experienced and FEMA’s spending in response to floods over the last decade. Proactive measures, she said, will always be the most cost-effective approach.

Lane Moore is an intern at 90.5 WESA. They are a senior at Ohio University studying journalism and sociology, and their reporting is published in Print Newspaper, Southeast Ohio Magazine, and