Numlock News: Hannah Weinberger on the levees that could save a city
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Hannah Weinberger, who wrote “Battered by destructive floods, Grays Harbor bets on a $182M levee” for Crosscut. Here's what I wrote about it:
As severe flooding increases owing to the effects of climate change, many low-lying coastal cities have some expensive decisions to make. When the flood maps show that homes are in danger of flooding — as is the case in Aberdeen and Hoquiam in Washington state, where homes in the hazard area now have a 26 percent chance of flooding over the course of a 30-year mortgage — cities are faced with a tough call, which is how much money is the right amount of money to lower that risk. Flooding is poised to threaten $500 million in home value in the pair of cities by 2050. For the past decade, the cities have drawn attention for their plan to install a $182.6 million flood protection project of two levees and a pump station to shave off some of that aggregate risk. Groundbreaking began last year thanks to an influx of federal money, and it’s one of several solutions — others include both tsunami towers and just rebuilding at higher elevations — that coastal cities must weigh.
This is such a cool story, because it’s about a pervasive problem — how do we actually, really take care of expensive problems caused by climate change — and looks at a community that sees the various options before it and is making a substantial bet on itself as it tries to avert the worst.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really fascinating story, all about two towns in Washington state that are staring down an expectation of flooding for decades to come, and are doing something really ambitious about it. Do you want to talk about what issue they're facing?
This story started out as an effort to evaluate what an influx of federal money into a place that feels historically ignored and under-resourced means for people there. My editors know that I'm really into climate adaptation, and so my editor was like, "How about you look at this levee that's going up?" What we found is that the project the money is going toward, this levee, is really kind of like a Hail Mary for a community that's between a rock and a hard place. It feels like an omen for a lot of coastal communities to come. The context here is that these two cities, Hoquiam and Aberdeen in Grays Harbor, Washington, on the coast, grew up along the coast to support these busy timber towns that took advantage of port access.
The area has always experienced some flooding. It's unavoidable when you're surrounded by so many rivers and you're at sea level and you build up part of your city on tideflats. But over the decades, flooding has become more severe as seas rise and rains worsen. Meanwhile, the foundational timber economy of the area has faltered, and there are a lot of factors influencing why the town isn't as wealthy as it was, but one thing that people are saying is that it's not just flooding that's dangerous, but the threat of flooding is itself hurting the community financially during drier times.
I won't get too into the weeds, but effectively what's happening here is federal flood insurance requirements put a lot of financial stress on homeowners, and there are building requirements for areas that the Federal Emergency Management Administration deem especially hazardous, like these areas, and that can create barriers to developing and maintaining housing and business. It's kind of a cascade of lack of housing, lack of people, lack of business, and it reinforces itself, and the area's already reported losing more than 800 jobs in the past four years, and that's a lot for an area that only has 13,000 jobs.
But this came to a head in 2015 during some really bad high tides and rains, and the two cities started working with other government agencies and representatives to figure out what to do. The only choice that seemed feasible, which is still expensive, is this levee project, which includes two levees close to the shoreline to keep the waves back, and a pump station near the port to handle flooding. If these levees are designed in such a way that they prevent a 100-year flood, FEMA will remove everything behind them from the floodplain. Which means, people hope, that the levees would not only prevent damage, but encourage community development because there are fewer development hurdles.
It's a fascinating situation, just because so often we'll see predictions and forecasts about things like climate change or things like floods that have these big sticker prices of, "Oh, this is going to diminish half a billion dollars in home value over the next 30 years." And then when you see these large sticker prices for these kind of interventions, that can also be shocking. But it does just make fiscal sense at a certain point, even if it is kind of an audacious strategy.
Right. When you compare a couple of the other options that coastal communities have, they can move, which when you're talking about 25,000 people and a lot of infrastructure in a place that has 100 years of history, it is a lot.
You can just stop building critical infrastructure in the floodplain, which when your whole city is in the floodplain is kind of a no-go.
You can build structures like tsunami towers, which protect people during floods but not buildings.
Or you can build infrastructure like the levee, which is kind of reflective of digging your heels into the place where you are, but you have this support around you which could mitigate some of the damage, and that's a decision that a lot of coastal communities are going to make.
What I found interesting about this situation is that this is a community that knows it needs to make this decision, but it's trying to make it on a deadline that a lot of other communities don't have. They're going through a real reckoning, where the cities are betting it all on one thing they hope will not only prevent floods, but prevent the community from going under financially. Especially as more federal funding for resilient infrastructure comes online, some of these communities that are in more dire straits in terms of funding their own strategies might have a little bit of a lifeline.
That's really interesting. These two communities are on a river, and the federal data, as you wrote, there's something like a 26 percent chance that a flood causes significant damages over the course of a new 30-year mortgage. You're alluding to the fact that the damage is potentially already done, because the house price for selling that house is already damaged by that fact, right?
When the National Flood Insurance Program sets rates — I never thought I would ever be someone who thought flood insurance was interesting, let's just say that — basically when they set rates, they decide based on a whole host of data, some of which is kind of old, like how vulnerable a building or community is, and for areas in this zone, these high-hazard zones, basically what they need is FEMA thinks that over the course of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26 percent chance of flooding.
The actual data that's been coming out, it changes every year as we get more information but it never really seems to get better, is that under the most extreme climate scenario, this group Climate Central did an analysis a couple years ago, basically, this town has a 100 percent chance of flooding every year under the worst climate scenario by 2100.
It's a given that flooding will happen without this levee infrastructure if sea level rise continues the way it is. Even under a less extreme scenario, there's still a huge chance of flooding. But what that means for people who live here in these homes that already are seeing decreased home value just because of the situation the community is in? When they try to improve their homes, like one of these building requirements that comes with being in a flood zone, it's like a two-one punch: You have to pay money on top of whatever you want to renovate if the cost of the renovation you want to do is more than 50 percent of the value of the home, to raise your home above the floodplain so that it's less of a flood risk.
Sometimes just raising your home, like literally putting your home on cement stilts, can cost more than the kitchen renovation you wanted to do, especially when your home is maybe only $100,000. So there's less housing available. Sometimes homeowners choose to just not renovate, rent out their home or allow it to kind of fall apart gradually, or they move. It's really hard to attract businesses when you don't have a great housing supply.
What can you tell us about the project?
The project, when you're actually in this area looking at where these things are going to be and looking at analogous projects like other levees in the area, it doesn't look like much. It's basically like you're putting together a bunch of earth and berms or little humps, and concrete walls that are maybe five or six feet depending on where they are, just because the land isn't always necessarily at 100 percent sea level, but it doesn't sound that impressive. You're building a bunch of gates, effectively, but it costs nearly $200 million.
What these levees are going to do is intercept waves when they come in, and they are associated with a pump station project that, as one engineer described it to me, is kind of like siphoning out the bathtub. When you have coastal flooding that happens at the same time as heavy rains, it can overpower your storm drains, and then you are just sitting in muck and wet. In order to get that water out fast enough, you need to have these things called pump stations. This infrastructure's being designed to be able to withstand a 100-year flood, and if it can do that, FEMA will remove all of the buildings behind them from the floodplain, and people will no longer be federally required to carry flood insurance if they have a federally-backed mortgage, or they won't be required to elevate their home above the floodplain, because they won't be in the floodplain technically.
How does this contrast with what other cities are doing? You mentioned, I know tsunami towers might not be very familiar to a lot of people, but this is just one of many different strategies, albeit a particularly bold one.
Absolutely, and there are so many coastal communities, some of which are already leaning into the fact that the world around them is changing regardless of whether it was their fault, and they need to adapt to that.
Some of them are making decisions already about how they want to pursue that. One of those decisions could be installing tsunami towers, which are basically like parking garages but for people. They have a bunch of stairs, and if there is a tsunami which is accompanied by really high waves, people can climb the tower and try to ride it out there above where the waters come in. That doesn't protect your building infrastructure, but arguably it protects the most important infrastructure, which is people.
Other communities are moving entirely. Famously, the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state is moving two towns, Taholah and Queets, a little bit up the hill in the reservation where they have some higher-elevation land. It's like a couple hundred people in a town, and that is still so, so expensive. The tribe just got like $25 million from the federal government to build a couple community centers at this new location, but it's just going to take so much time and energy, and it is emotionally and culturally traumatic to have to move everything that's important to you.
And then some people in these towns are attempting to elevate their homes. I went by this one house that's like midway through renovation in Aberdeen, and it looks really sad, and you can see into what the new basement will be like, and it just seems like such a hassle to do this when the floodplain may change over the years and it's just going to continually be a burden.
Got it. So, how will we know whether this is a success or not? When do we kind of know if this is the framework that more cities should pursue, or whether or not it was a little bit too much, or whether or not it's just worth it to hike up the hill?
I think this community will have to decide for itself whether the project ends up being worth it. There are still a bunch of permits that they need to get and the design needs to be finalized. But regardless, hopefully these levees will prevent some of the worst of coastal flooding when those floods do come in, and the pump station will help clear out streets a little bit sooner, so people won't have to request as much from the government or whomever's providing their insurance. Their claims won't be as high.
But what I heard overwhelmingly from a lot of sources in hazard mitigation is that each community is going to have to decide what their own values are when they're looking for a path forward, and what might be right for one community won't be right for another. And a lot of these decisions, regardless of what they decide, they have to find the funding to do this, which is why this new federal funding that's coming down from like the IRA and these BRIC funds, so the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities funds, which are supporting the levee project here, are so important, is that they can make or break some of these projects that might feel like moonshots, especially for communities that really can't fund these projects themselves.
Over the summer I interviewed a local author, Madeline Ostrander, who wrote a book about basically the idea of home as the climate changes. What she found in interviewing people who are living in different communities facing different disasters and impacts of climate change is that fundamentally, everyone's idea of home, whether it's the community that you grew up in, the geographic location, the sense of security, is going to change with climate change, and that may influence the decisions that people make. But regardless, the fact that this community isn't avoiding this issue, is actually leaning into it and trying despite the fact that they don't already have funds to do it, they're really just single-mindedly pursuing this levee, is something to be applauded.
I have also heard from some people that there are large concerns about what it means to encourage development in places that are inherently vulnerable. Like are you delaying the inevitable by trying to bring businesses into this area that's built on tideflats? But every community has its own vulnerabilities, I think, and if this is what this community is deciding is right for it, or is the only possible opportunity for it given how expensive some of these other options are, then who are we to say that they're making the wrong choice?
Just as we kind of wrap it up, I know that this is just one part of a larger series of stories that you're doing basically about this big worldwide-implication events, but in some of these cash-strapped areas. What else can folks look forward to and where can they find your work?
So, I am the science and environment reporter for Crosscut, which is a nonprofit news outlet associated with KCTS 9 PBS in Seattle. I cover climate adaptation and how humans and wildlife adapt to changing spaces and each other, but for this piece, I was joined by a couple colleagues working on other stories about infrastructure in Grays Harbor, including a story about bridge maintenance, which is a big issue in Washington state and especially in Grays Harbor. And then another story about broadband access, so about a third of the residents will only be able to access my colleagues' story slowly or with great difficulty because they don't have ready access to broadband, and in Grays Harbor, a lot of people also don't have good access to the internet. But I am anticipating continuing to write about climate adaptation, along with a host of other things like invasive species and wildlife management. So, you can find all of that on Crosscut.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.