In and around Jackson, Mississippi, more than 180,000 people have been without running or drinkable water for over a week. Flooding from heavy rainfall damaged water treatment plants and other infrastructure, exacerbating existing issues of an old and poorly maintained system. Though water pressure was restored over the weekend, according to the city, a boil water notice (which initially went into effect back in July) remains.
The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Deanne Criswell, visited Jackson amid the crisis on Friday. And, following her visit, admitted to CNN that her agency’s flood risk assessment maps aren’t currently able to account for climate change and the extreme weather events that come along with it.
Beyond Jackson, severe flooding has been widespread across the U.S. this summer. Multiple so-called “1,000 year” rain events have happened in quick succession over the past few months in Montana, Kentucky, St. Louis, Death Valley, Illinois, and Dallas.
Just hours after Criswell appeared on CNN’s State of the Union, flood warnings and a state of emergency were declared in parts of Georgia, as more than a foot of rain fell. Damage is still being assessed from those floods.
In many cases of heavy rainfall, observed flooding can extend far beyond areas designated “flood zones” by FEMA. For example, 78% of the homes and businesses inundated in St. Louis in July were outside of those zones, according to an earlier CNN analysis.
“People should not rely exclusively on FEMA flood maps in this stage of climate change, because the flood maps only look backwards. They look at historical flooding,” Michael Gerrard, a climate change law expert at Columbia University, told the outlet last week.
Scientists and outside analysts have long voiced concerns that FEMA’s map system, which is meant to provide an evaluation of risk and help inform decision making, is missing the mark. A 2020 report from the non-profit First Street Foundation determined that 60% more properties were at substantial risk of flooding than FEMA’s official numbers suggest. Now a summer of disasters seems to well-support the critique. It’s become apparent that existing federal risk projections aren’t adequate for the climate change era.
“I think the part that’s really difficult right now is the fact that our flood maps don’t take into account excessive rain,” Criswell told CNN on Sunday. “In St. Louis, right, record rainfall of over [1,000] years—when you have that amount of rain per hour, that’s what our flood maps don’t necessarily take into consideration.”
Yet climate change is turning record rain events into regular occurrences, worsening storms and producing new weather patterns. Formerly 100-year rain events are already happening 5x as frequently and could soon occur every 5 years on average, according to one 2020 study. Other published research suggests the U.S. has already incurred $75 billion in flood damage because of climate change, in just the past 30 years.
Asked if FEMA will update its projections to include climate change, Criswell said, “I think there’s a lot of work that needs to go into that.” Though, the agency head offered no specifics or timeline.
Instead, she added that FEMA is “going to continue to work with all of our local jurisdictions to help them better identify what their needs are and help them create better predictive models, because we have to start thinking about what the threats are going to be in the future as a result of climate change, so they can put the mitigation measures in place.”