The Metro Atlanta Flood Event – 9 Months Later is it Still “Business as Usual” ?

 Author: Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM

Nine months is a long time.  For some it can mark the time from conception to birth of a precious baby and can be a time of joy and unbridled expectation.  For others, like those who suffered catastrophic loss in the Metro Atlanta Flood Event that occurred in late September of 2009, it can be a time of healing, of repairing and of trying to return their life “back to normal”.    The expectation is quite different for these flood-ravaged victims, however, and it is anything but joyful.  Every rain event causes apprehension and brings to mind the question – what will the consequences of today’s storm be?  

Additionally, in that same nine months time period, other communities have been scarred by the devastating toll of flooding across the US – Kansas, Arkansas (2 events), Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, New Jersey (2 events), New York (2 events), Alabama, North Carolina, California, North Dakota (2 events), Arizona, Minnesota, Maine, West Virginia, Rhode Island (2 events), Massachusetts (2 events), Minnesota, Nebraska, Connecticut, Mississippi (2 events), Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and South Dakota – who have amassed a whopping 33 declared events in 26 states (through 5/14/2010).  The list continues to grow with additional flood events occurring within the past thirty days.   The growing fear is that unless some drastic changes are made in the way “we do business”, the list may tend to grow in proportion to the amount of development we, as communities, put into areas that should have been left to serve the natural and beneficial functions of floodplains and wetlands.

Community officials are faced with ever increasing challenges related to disaster prevention, especially in the realm of flood losses.  The late Gilbert F. White said it best: “Floods are acts of nature, but flood losses are largely acts of man.”  Obviously, the best defense against a flood disaster is a good offense of planning, planning and more planning, coupled with better land use doctrine, and higher standards in building codes.   Yet, it is hard for planning and increased regulations to get much momentum when budgets are tight and everyone in the community believes that the chance of a disaster is, at best, a low-probability phenomenon.

Still, across our nation, flooding is, and continues to be, the # 1 natural hazard – being not only the most frequent, but also the costliest natural disaster in the United States.  Even with everything that has been done by FEMA, state agencies, and local communities in recent years to map floodplains, and even with an increased push for public awareness and flood risk education, more than 50% of all of the properties that are in high risk areas (the mapped special flood hazard area (SFHA) ), do not have flood insurance.  It’s not just those that live within the mapped (regulatory) floodplain that need flood insurance, either.  A staggering twenty five percent of all flood insurance claims are outside of the mapped special flood hazard area – as evidenced by the catastrophic flooding in Atlanta, Georgia in September 2009, and in other flood-ravaged areas around the United States in recent years.  Trends in flood damages have seen the biggest increase in damages of all of the other natural disasters including earthquakes, wildfires and windstorms (both hurricanes and tornadoes).

Low-probability, high-consequence flood events account for millions, and often billions, of dollars in flood damages each and every year.  “Just a few inches of water from a flood can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage” to a structure and its contents, according to  “Over the past ten years, the average flood claim has amounted to over $33,000.”    The cost to local governments can be equally as devastating: enormous expenses are associated with emergency response and recovery, debris clean-up, and repairs to roads, bridges and infrastructure.   The majority, if not all, of the financial burden of flood disasters usually is borne by communities and individuals.

The facts are alarming: There is a 26% chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage compared to just a 9% chance of fire and, nationwide, an average of 25 to 30% of small businesses never reopen their doors after a flood event.  Yet, many community leaders still view the threat of flooding as arbitrary, unpredictable and often unlikely.  Sadly, that “it won’t happen to us” attitude can result in disastrous damage to property, catastrophic failure of infrastructure, and monumental loss of life.

In many of those same communities, the current policy of development promotes intensification in risk areas, ignores changing conditions, ignores adverse impacts to existing properties, both up and downstream, and undervalues the natural and beneficial functions of our nation’s floodplains, wetlands and sensitive areas.  Current approaches deal primarily with how to build in a floodplain – vs – how to minimize future damages to all affected property owners. 

The central message is this:  We have done a number of positive things in recent years to combat flooding, both structural and non-structural, but it is not enough – even if we perfectly implement the current standards, damages will increase, because we are putting development in the path of disaster.

So what do we do, as a community, to curb this cycle of build – flood – rebuild ?? 

Community leaders must prepare in advance if they wish to gain the upper-hand on the devastating effects of flooding on their community.  They must hone their best boy-scout skills and “prepare for the unexpected” and they must utilize manpower and resources to plan now how to avoid or minimize future flood events. Localities have the opportunity to shape their future development patterns – to reach a greater level of sustainability by engaging in progressive planning and practicing sound management of their natural resources thereby minimizing their exposure to the most damaging of natural hazards – flooding.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), a respected voice in floodplain management practice and policy in the United States, has spent the last several years coming up with a workable and cost effective solution.  No Adverse Impact (NAI) is a concept / policy / strategy that changes one’s focus from building within the environment to “do no harm”.  No Adverse Impact (NAI) is an approach that ensures that the action of any community or property owner, public or private, does not adversely impact the property and rights of others.  The true strength of the No Adverse Impact approach is that it encourages local decision making to ensure that future development impacts will be identified, considered on a watershed-wide basis, and mitigated – it is a truly comprehensive strategy for reducing the losses, costs, and human suffering caused by flooding.

The pluses to the NAI Approach are eye-catching:

  • Will reduce future flood damages
  • Will reduce future suffering
  • Will protect the communities natural resources and amenities
  • Will improve the quality of life
  • Will provide for more sustainable growth within the community
  • Will reduce the community’s liability

Other potential benefits to the community of utilizing the NAI Approach can include:

  • Improved water quality and reductions in non-point pollution impacts
  • Green corridors which also serve as additional areas for floodwater storage
  • Improved groundwater recharge
  • Better bank stabilization and better erosion control
  • Possible increased property values near these “green” areas

Communities can begin now to explore the positive results of No Adverse Impact (NAI).  They can start by defining “adverse impact” for their community’s unique conditions (this is not a one shoe fits all philosophy).  ”Adverse impacts” can be defined by evaluating their community’s hazards (especially in or near the floodplain, and more importantly, throughout the entire watershed) and also their community’s programs for addressing those potential hazards.  Most importantly, communities can require all adverse impacts to be mitigated at the time that development occurs.

It is important to note that Courts have broadly and consistently upheld performance-oriented floodplain regulations including those that exceed minimum FEMA standards.  Regulations that require additional freeboard, establish setbacks, impose tighter floodway restrictions, or very tightly regulate high risk areas, have consistently been upheld by the Courts.

The principles associated with No Adverse Impact (NAI) fit well within a sustainable development framework.  Local communities can utilize the No Adverse Impact concepts by, among other techniques, implementing comprehensive watershed-based plans that recognize existing hazards; using environmentally sensitive zoning ordinances; promoting floodplain management regulations that will protect existing and future generations; expanding floodplain, wetlands, and resource mapping; and adopting disaster-resistant building codes.

In many communities, current approaches to land use and development are creating future disasters.  If we, as communities, continue to encourage at-risk development and ignore the impacts to others, can we accept the consequences……………..and, are you, as a citizen, or a community, willing to pay for it ? 

In my opinion, the loss of even one life is much too high a price to pay !!!

 The author, Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM is Assistant Zoning and Development Administrator for the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission in Augusta, Georgia,  Terri is the past Chair of the Georgia Association of Floodplain Management (GAFM) , the current ASFPM Region 4 Director, the current No Adverse Impact Committee Co-Chair and has recently been awarded the ASFPM Local Floodplain Manager of the Year Award.

5 Responses to “The Metro Atlanta Flood Event – 9 Months Later is it Still “Business as Usual” ?”

  1. Sherry Hedstrom Says:

    article is very informative and helpful for what i need to do. can you tell me how i can get in contact with ASFPM in Georgia, if one is in the state,
    or wherever they are located. NAI will be an asset in my endeavor. txs

  2. tom mcdonald Says:

    Great article. Informative and leads to solutions on how to protect the land while allowing development to occur.
    Tom McDonald, CFM
    Svannah, Ga.

  3. Reza Aral Says:

    Well said. Congratulation to Terry

  4. landmatters Says:

    At Sherry:

    The Georgia Association of Floodplain Management (GAFM) is a Chapter of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

    Terri Turner is their past Chair and have worked extensively both at the State and National level with No Adverse Impact (NAI). Terri is currently the ASFPM NAI Co-Chair.

    Tom McDonald works for the City of Savannah and is the current Chair of GAFM. Tom can be reached at (912) 651-6530.

  5. Terri L Turner Says:

    The Georgia Association of Floodplain Management (GAFM) is a Chapter of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). More information about No Adverse Impact (NAI) and GAFM can be found at The current Chair, Tom McDonald, can be reached at (912) 651-6530.

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