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Tim Palmer on the Campbell Conversations

Tim Palmer
Tim Palmer

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Tim Palmer. A prolific nature writer and photographer, Palmer has won awards from the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and American Rivers. They discuss his new book, "Seek Higher Ground: The Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis."

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Tim Palmer. He's a prolific nature writer and photographer and has won awards from, among other places, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and American Rivers. He's here with me today because he's authored a new book titled “Seek Higher Ground: A Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis.” Mr. Palmer, welcome to the program.

Tim Palmer: Thank you. Grant, it's great to be here with you today.

GR: Well, that's good to have you. So let me just start with a real basic question. How did you get the idea to write this book? Now, on on flooding. What, what's the story behind it?

TP: Well, it goes way back. I was a victim of flooding in, get this, 1972, and some people in your area may remember the Hurricane Agnes flood. It was the most damaging flood in American history up to that time. And I happened to live at ground zero in north central Pennsylvania near Williamsport.

GR: Okay.

TP: And, my home was almost flooded. Not quite. It went up to the, the next step would have got us in. It's a front entrance. But my neighbors were flooded and, you know, seriously damage. And I helped them and became engaged in emergency services. I was also working as the county planner at the time on the planning staff. I was the environmental planner. So as soon as I got back to work, I had the job of not just questioning how we could help flood victims, but how we could prevent this kind of disaster from occurring again. And that was the seed.

GR: Okay.

TP: I worked as a planner and then I started writing full-time. And this has been a long time ago. I've written many books about rivers and river conservation since. But the flood issue has always been very close to my heart and in my mind. And then we came to global warming and the floods are getting way worse. So I think you can see that's unfolding now.

GR: Right. And it's interesting that you mentioned, Hurricane Agnes. I remember that as, as a kid, I grew up in the Washington, DC area, and I can remember that came through. We weren't flooded in our neighborhood, but the main, artery, road was. And that had never happened before. And, my dad and I went down there to just to see it and look at them, watch them trying to clean that up. So I remember that hurricane very well. So, so. Well, give me a, a recent, brief history, if you could, of flooding in the United States, let's say, since 1972, since Hurricane Agnes, you mentioned global warming and the fact that these have gotten worse. But, you know, are there any general trends a little a little more specific than that, that that you think are important for our listeners to know?

TP: Yeah, yeah, quite a few of them actually. But the, you know, for years and years, we basically tried to deal with the flooding problem by attempting to stop the floods from occurring and doing that by building dams. So we spent billions of dollars. The Army Corps of Engineers alone built 400 flood control dams across the country. In spite of all that effort, flood damages continued to grow worse and worse and worse. The fundamental reason is people kept building more and more and more in the flood plains. So even though the Corps was working as hard as they could to stop floods, we still had floods. More and more people were subject to damage. And now we have the dangers to have dams failing and that kind of thing. The other essential approach was to build levees, not to stop floods from occurring, but to keep them away from us. And, you know, levees fail and levees overtop. And Wilkes-Barre again, the Hurricane Agnes flood, 100,000 people, dam flooded because the levee failed. so these two essential approaches were not working in terms of limiting flood damage. And so, yeah, as a planner, you know, I was immersed in this issue, no pun intended, but it was evident to me that we had to simply quit developing more and more on the floodplains and instead protect them as open space. It's the most dangerous, most expensive place to develop with all kinds of not just private cost, but public costs. And secondly, we had to help people relocate out of the danger zone wherever they were willing to go. So this dual approach to me made way more sense. You get rid of the problem that way. And, so I kind of worked on those lines as a planner. We got zoning accepted in all 52 of our local municipalities. We launched a buyout program. I left the planning career, began writing full-time. This is 32 books ago, but the flooding issue has also been one that has interested me greatly. And as the data has come in on global warming and its effects on floods, this to me just augmented the importance and the urgency of understanding this subject better and understanding the path that we must follow if we're trying to get out of the jam that we're in today with this.

GR: Yeah. You just you just gave us a glimpse of sort of the, the central, positive argument of your book of what, what we ought to do instead. And I want to explore that with you a little bit later. But let me just stick with this other thing first, and I'll come back to that. Now, you talked about this. There are two things going on in creating this problem. And your focus is mostly on the United States. I was just wondering, have you have you looked around the world, similar patterns, anything there that, that strikes you?

TP: Yeah, I have a little bit Grant. But, you know, the flooding issue in the United States is so enormous. And I had a limited number of words for my book with the University of California Press. So I didn't really get into that very deeply. But I did look at in a few sections, I addressed that worldwide, the problems are even more serious, because there's even less activity in trying to regulate development or help people move. Take Bangladesh okay, exhibit A, millions of people, many millions of people subject to flood hazards, and they live at sea level, you know, so they not only have river flooding, but they have the rising sea level issue to deal with and the projections for the numbers, the increasing numbers of people subjected to flood damage worldwide are truly mind-boggling. And I have I cover that in the book. My main purpose in doing that is, is not so much to inform about the world situation or figure out what other countries need to do, but to point out how important it is that we try to lead the way. We have ability, we have the knowledge, we have the talent, we have the staff, we have the history to come to grips with this problem. If we just get over the political hurdles involved, we have the ability and all of what's needed to show the world a better way. But you know, we're not doing it. And so pointing to the direction we must follow, you know, in the United States was my primary goal, even in terms of addressing the problems of the rest of the world.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Tim Palmer. He's a nature writer and photographer and the author of the new book, “Seek Higher Ground: The Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis.” So you mentioned that global warming has obviously made this problem worse, but also where housing is being located, and decisions about that have made the problem worse. This may not be terribly important to try to figure out which which one of those two things has been more of a driver, but I am sort of curious. Did you come to any consensus, that is, which one is the worse culprit? Global warming and the change in climate or where we're putting these houses in the first place?

TP: Well, where we're developing is the fundamental problem here. Since the beginning of time, there've been floods. It's part of the hydrologic cycle. It's the way nature works. We wouldn't even have valleys to build in if it weren't for floods swarming that landform in time. And so, you know, we've always had floods, we've never been effective in, in helping people to build in the proper places and making it harder to build in the improper places. And so it's it's a matter the global warming issue is a matter of more urgency now and a matter of degree. It's simply telling us that, hey, this has always been a problem, and now this problem is getting way worse. Unless we do some really effective reforms right away.

GR: One of the things that you do spend some time talking about in the book is our system of, flood insurance in this country. And, it hasn't it hasn't worked. Well, you argue so. But first, if you can do this briefly, I know it's a very complicated subject, but briefly, how does the system work for those who have never considered having to get it or, you know, dealt with this?

TP: So flood damages are more severe and serious than fire damages to a home. They're more of them. They're more costly. It's more widespread. Yet we all have fire insurance, you know, but we don't have flood insurance. One reason is it's too expensive. The insurance industry is well-informed. They know that selling flood insurance is not a money-making job for them. So it costs way too much for people to afford. So nobody bought it. The floods keep coming, the federal agencies and very enlightened people involved in them back in the 50s and the 60s recognized this. And so they came up with a brilliant formula here, and that was that we can, we should offer subsidized federal flood insurance so that all these victims of floods were already living on flood plains through really, perhaps no fault of their own, so that they can afford insurance. But the deal is to do that, the local municipality needs to zone the flood plain so that the damages don't continue to become worse and worse. Okay, so it was a two-part bargain that was that was developed here. And then after the Agnes flood, it was realized that almost nobody had flood insurance and that Wilkes-Barre mentioned Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where the levee failed in 1972, 100,000 people were evacuated and flooded. Two of them had flood insurance, two, even with the federal program. So the people in charge at that point had the additional brilliant idea that we should tie this to the federal insured mortgage system so that if people wanted a federally backed mortgage, which virtually all of them are, the community had to be enrolled in the flood insurance program and thereby zone the land that is subject to hazard. So that was passed, and I was a county planner at the time, and I think I speak for many in saying that, that we thought we had come across the bridge here and that we were going to solve this problem in the long term because, number one, we won't have much more development in the flood plain. Number two, what development is there will eventually phase out because of the flood issues, but it didn't work out that way. What happened instead was largely owing to the influence of the development industries, banking, real estate, home building, the federal process became somewhat, I think, active. And when the actual regulations came down and when the money was appropriated and all those kinds of things, the program ended up being watered down way too much to be as effective as it should have been. The restrictions on development were not tight enough. The mapping of floodplains was not effective enough. The target of a 100-year floodplain is not big enough. Now. The floods are way bigger than that. And, you know, and the money that that made available for this just just didn't do the job. So what we need to do now is, and what we've needed to do from day one, is reform that program to be more effective. And there are good practical, real ways of doing that.

GR: Well, we'll get into some of those in the second half. It's interesting when you started telling me that story, first thing, I'm a political scientist, first thing that popped into my head is the politics of the zoning must have been out the wazoo. And of course, that is exactly the story you told me. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Tim Palmer. He's a nature writer and photographer, and he's with me because he's recently written a new book titled “Seek Higher Ground: A Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis.” And we've been discussing this book. So I can see what you said before the break there, that as we have also done more of this development as floods have gotten worse, and at the same time you have that political and economic dynamic. It's basically, if you'll excuse the pun, I'm sure there's a lot of these in this topic, but a perfect storm for a problem. So how would you change just the flood insurance plan? I know you've got a larger argument to make, but just in terms of this flood insurance plan, how would you tighten that up? I mean, how can you push back against that kind of influence?

TP: Yeah, just another footnote on the issues of the program. It's worse than I described. It's so bad that insurance, in many cases has become an incentive to build on the floodplains, because now taxpayers are shouldering the burden of the damage, you know, rather than just the individual. So, you know, this whole story is a great illustration of the law of unintended consequences. So how would you fix it? Well, there's this is a big subject of course. There's an organization called the Association of State Floodplain Managers that has a whole agenda on how FEMA, the Federal Energy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Congress should reform the program. But let me just highlight a couple of things. It should be really easy to do. Okay. One is that people can get payouts from the insurance program after damage without limit. There are limits on the amounts, but number of floods are unlimited. There are actually homes that have been flooded and paid by taxpayers for flood damage 18 and 20 different times. There are many places that have been paid more than the entire value of the house, and these are called repeatedly flooded properties. And, they make up 1% of the policies in the federal flight insurance program, but they account for 30% of the payout costs. So this is an outrage to have for someone to own a property and frequently these are not the people living on floodplains because they have no other place to go. Many of these are like trophy homes along the coastal areas, they're used as rental properties. And, you know, they just keep getting hammered and rebuilt, taxpayer hammer, get taxpayer payouts, rebuilt. And we're all paying for that. So limiting the repeated damage payouts should be a no-brainer. Same problem, development industries come in there and say, well, you know, as long as somebody is willing to pay us to rebuild these houses, we're going to rebuild them, you know? And so that's number one. It should be easy to change. Number two should be a disclosure requirement on flood damage. When you want to sell a house, you have to do a deed search to assure the buyer that you're actually, you actually own the house you're selling to them. This is to protect the buyer. There is no disclosure of flood damage, so the people buying the home have no idea that it floods.

GR: That's interesting because there's disclosures for lead paint. There's disclosure for all sorts of expenses and repairs that that home has had. I didn't know that.

TP: Yeah, absolutely. So the poor people buying the place aren't required to be told. They of course can look themselves. But let me tell you about my own experience on this. I was going to buy a cabin along the Rogue River in Oregon. The place cabin of my dreams. Okay, so I met with a realtor there and, kind of looked things over and asked, you know, is this exposed to flood hazards? It didn't quite pass my eyeball test as a guy who's worked with rivers all my life, and she said, oh, yes, they built a dam upstream. It will never flood again. And that didn't quite pass my sniff test of the negotiation. So I went straight to the county planning office. I was able to do this, fortunately, looked up the maps and sure enough, I was right in the floodway waiting for another atmospheric river with my name on it. So I of course declined to buy that property, but somebody else did, and they probably had no idea it was going to flood. So disclosure should be a requirement. We pay for these flood maps for FEMA to do, it should be public knowledge. The, you know, the arguments to not let people know what they're buying or, you know, just don’t fly. So that's the second big thing, a third kind of reform that's needed is in the schedule for how much is paid for flood insurance. And to their credit, FEMA is moving on this issue and reforming the cost schedule so that those properties that account for the biggest payouts when they flood are actually paying more for the insurance than the poor people who just, you know, through no fault of their own, live in the floodplain and get hammered repeatedly. So those are three reforms that should be easy to do. There are many others we need to more effectively map floodplains. We need to have the 500-year, rather than a 100-year flood be the principle guiding metric in this. We need to include the effects of global warming because they are going to make floods way, way bigger. But those are just a few of the really practical things that can be done that should be done, that must be done to reform the program.

GR: So I want to get to some of the big picture things here in the last part of our conversation. But let me just check one impression that I've gotten from something you said earlier, and make sure I've got that fact right. And that's, you were talking about dams and levees originally. So I just want to make sure I understand this. One of the trends, I assume, that we've seen, along with the flooding, is that more dams have been failing than before. Is that correct? Okay. And the same thing with the levees that they've been I mean, I obviously everyone thinks that Katrina, but. Yeah. Okay.

TP: Excuse me to clarify.

GR: Go ahead.

TP: With all credit to the Army Corps, most of the dam failures are not corps dams were built for flood control. But some are in the Bureau Reclamation, built, for example, Teton Dam in Idaho, which failed while it was being filled. It caused more flood damage than an entire network of Snake River dams had prevented in flood damage over the course of history. Most of the dam failures, however, are private dams that have been poorly regulated, poorly monitored, many of them without even owners anymore. So, but nonetheless…

GR: Like the story of the Johnstown flood, you know that that.

TP: Exactly.

GR: Okay. Got it. Okay. If you just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is the nature writer Tim Palmer. So, I want to get to some of the bigger questions that your book gets at. And I want to first ask you, before we get to your the argument that's kind of embedded in the title of your book, but flooding itself, how will more regular and less constrained flooding help us help the planet? Why is it good?

TP: Yes, yes, yes. There's a whole other side to the flooding coin here that we have not talked about that almost nobody talks about, and that is that floods are not only inevitable in the workings of nature, but they're essential to the workings of nature. We actually need to have floods. It's the way landforms are formed. Floods account for the very best of our wildlife habitat. They're needed by fish for their habitat. Floods are what deliver sand to the beaches, we wouldn’t have beaches. If you like beach sand at the ocean, you got to like floods. If you like fish, you got to like floods. And so they are part of the natural process of the way the earth works, that we have failed to really recognize and give credit for.

GR: And so your title is, you know, “Seek Higher Ground.” So if that's really okay. So, so ultimately your bottom line solution to this is we need to locate in different places. First of all, if you could briefly because I want to have a follow up to this. What do you mean by that? Is that just like where we should be doing new construction, where people should be thinking about buying homes? All the above?

TP: Yeah, yeah. So we need to, number one, effectively zone our floodplains so that they are not developed more than they already are. Two very interesting statistics on this. 90% of our floodplain acreage is not heavily developed. So the problem could get about nine times worse than it now is if we're all developed. So we need to protect what still is open space. Second number here is 7%. And that is the total floodplain area of the United States. There are a lot of other places to go, to build, and not that that will be easy, but 97% of America is not floodplain. So much of that is more suitable for development than the high-hazard areas of floodplains that we have. So that's number one. We need to protect what is still open space. Number two, a lot of people are already there. And of course, we're not going to move Saint Louis, you know, or Memphis or Portland, Oregon and so forth. We need to protect them effectively with levees. But most of the area that is in a flood hazard area is not heavily developed. And in those areas, we should look at every possibility we can to help people relocate and get up out of the safety zone. I interviewed some very interesting people in my book who did this. And you know, and their stories are inspiring, really on how you know, people can come to grips with this problem and actually solve it, rather than just staying to worry and, and stress about the next flood to come.

GR: You know, I would think that first of all, the trauma of being flooded would be huge. And second of all, worrying about, as you just said, would be huge. There is one question though. We've got about a minute and a half left, so I want to give you a little bit of time to think about this, but what you just said, though, will be easier for some people than others. Right. And, and, and I'm thinking primarily because of economics. So that dislocation that might be involved and moving could be disastrous for some folks. So I would think that you'd have to build into this some kind of additional help for the people who need it. And very briefly, in about a minute or so, how would you do that?

TP: That's absolutely right. And, and a lot of agencies are doing precisely that. The number one, very few, if any public agencies are requiring people to move. This is the programs to help people relocate are all are essentially all voluntary government agencies. There's federal money, there's state money. There are local districts that all work toward helping people move if they want to. There's a lot of grant money available to do that, but it's not nearly enough. And here is another great pair of numbers. These are the two I'll leave you with. For every $1.70. Are federal government spends helping people to move away from flood danger and be done with the problem, the federal government spends $100 helping people to stay by helping pay for, quote, floodproofing, it doesn't work very well. To do, to help with public facilities that get damaged. So we need to reverse that ratio so that we're really helping people to move rather than to stay.

GR: That was Tim Palmer. And again, his new book is titled “Seek Higher Ground: The Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis.” It's an important book. It's evidence-based. It's got a lot of good material in there, but it's also very, very readable, so I highly recommend it. Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Really appreciate it.

TP: Thank you, Grand it’s been wonderful to be with you today.

GR: Great. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.