Unprepared for rain, Colorado pays the price

Manuel Sanchez takes in the view of his flooded home and property on September 14, 2013 in La Salle, Colo.

There's been so much rain in Colorado in the past week the National Weather Service has run out of words to describe it.  The other day the agency issued a forecast for “biblical” amounts of water coming from the sky.  The flooding and destruction have left seven people confirmed dead as of Monday.  The property losses -- homes, roads, bridges, and businesses -- will take months to figure out.

Given the costs of these kinds of rare but destructive events, how does a community decide how much to spend to protect itself? 

I put that question to Kathleen Tierney. We spoke on the phone this morning, after she had plotted a route to work along some of the roads left in Boulder, Colo., that were not underwater.  Her house has -- or had -- a finished basement with two bedrooms until a few days ago when “everything was inundated,” she said. “I have a third of my house that's a total loss.”

Hard as it is to face, the devastation Tierney has witnessed is not a total surprise. She is the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, where she studies how well communities prepare for natural disasters. The answer, she says, is not nearly well enough. 

“Our institutions need to do a better job of communicating to people that yes, these are infrequent events but they can happen and they do happen,” Tierney says. 

 That’s certainly true in the case of Boulder. The city has a history of flooding. The proverbial "hundred-year flood" has been the stuff of warnings for decades. And yet residents in Boulder -- and many flood prone areas -- often build in the flood plain, says Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

“People know they’re in the flood plain, but they're making this assessment that the risk of a major flooding such as what we have now is really not going to happen,” Cutter says.

But sooner or later it does happen, as it has in the last few days. So will that prompt people to invest in more disaster-resilient planning going forward? Probably not, says Robert Myer, co-director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

In the aftermath of a disaster like the one in Colorado, people begin by asking themselves important questions like “Should we be involved in just rebuilding things the way they were?  Or should we be thinking about rebuilding to make it more resilient so these sorts of things don’t happen in the future?” he says. But, those steps toward resiliency often come with enormous price tags.

“When you start to talk about what’s the cost of building highways that are going to be resilient to large flood events, the costs become really astronomical,” Myer says. “As soon as the memory of this begins to fade and legislatures and communities sit down and  look at the size of the tab that's associated with building a flood-resistant community, a lot of them might end up concluding, ‘Well, maybe we'll just take our chances.'"

It's human nature, Myer explains.  But it means when the "Big One" does happen in a community, the damage can be that much more expensive. 

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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