Catastrophic flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is the latest reminder that floods kill more people in the United States than any other type of natural disaster and are the most common natural disaster worldwide. Many communities along U.S. coastlines have begun to take heed and have slowed development in coastal flood zones. The bad news, as Harvey shows, is that inland communities are also at risk – and in some, development in flood zones is increasing.
With post-doctoral research associate Yi Qiang and graduate students, I recently studied development patterns in the United States from 2001 to 2011. We found that while new urban development in flood zones near coasts has generally declined, it has grown in inland counties. This is a worrisome trend. It implies that people who have experienced flooding on the coast migrate inland, but may not realize that they are still vulnerable if they relocate to an inland flood zone.
That's what we have seen firsthand here in Louisiana. Thousands of people fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and settled 80 miles inland in Baton Rouge. A decade later, many of these same people lost everything again when a 500-year flood event struck Baton Rouge in August 2016.
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Climate change effects, such as sea level rise and potentially more extreme weather, are increasing the risk of flooding, hurricanes and storm surges in coastal areas. Some communities are considering moving coastal populations inland to protect them. However, our research shows that people should be very careful about moving inland. They can still face flood hazards if their property is located in a high-risk flood zone.