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FEMA ranks Charlotte among the nation's top cities for flood mitigation



CHARLOTTE, NC Local Charlotte News – “Little sugar creek definitely fills up a good bit,” and sometimes….it overflows.

Arthur Noll’s neighbors had to kayak through floodwaters last November, “the water got up into his basement…some of the houses, garages got flooded,” he reminisces.

Tropical moisture dropped over 4.5″ of rain in just a few hours, making it the wettest November day on record in Charlotte.

Rob Weller has lived in the floodplain near the Park Road Shopping Center since 2012, and has flood insurance, “All of the new houses that are being built are raised up high enough where they didn’t have any damage,” he says.

“Some of them have been torn down and raised up a little bit, some of them have flood vents through them, and so their risk scores start to go down. Just lifting up your HVAC system reduces your risk score.”

John Wendel is with Charlotte Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, he emphasizes, “any place it rains can flood.”

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He tells us that planned prevention, “improve your mapping, improve your alerts, improve your communication with the public,” gives the city some brownie points from FEMA called a CRS, or Community Rating System. He explains, “They reward the folks and the communities with giving them the lower flood insurance cost,” which means a cheaper rate for you.

The new 35% discount on flood insurance will save Charlotteans $1 million annually. Huntersville, Pineville, and unincorporated Mecklenburg County get a 25% discount.

In just that November 2020 event alone, the city and county avoided $9 million worth of flood damage from the buyout program. This means they got homes out of high-risk floodplains before the next costly flood event. If the homes were still there, they would have suffered damage.

“And when there is climate change or more extreme precipitation this problem gets even worse,”

Dr. Antonia Sebastian is a hydraulic engineer at UNC-Chapel Hill, her research shows that floodplains are getting wider thanks to more rain and more concrete. “You have the compounding effects of higher levels or higher rates of precipitation landing on top of less spongy material and so that water runs off in even greater volumes,” she explains.

Flash flooding is becoming an increasing threat. Since 1950 Charlotte sees many more 1 and 2 inch deluge days, as more rain is coming down at once. Dr. Sebastian points out, “our storm sewer network, our streets all of that built environment infrastructure is built to for the floods we have seen in the past,” that means everyone…even those outside of the floodplain are at risk.

She clarifies, “The FEMA floodplain represents some types of flooding but it doesn’t represent all types of flooding. It represents the flooding that comes from the river or comes from the coast, but it doesn’t represent the flooding that comes because you got a heavy rainfall event in an urban area.”

Dr. Sebastian recognizes while we need floodplain lines to layout higher risk areas and more expensive insurance rates, “the disconnect between what the scientists and engineers understand, and what the policy is, and what the community understands…that’s a big gap.” Knowledge needs to spread to the other side of the line to help close the gap.

“So it’s a constant battle,” Wendel agrees, “but we’re doing a pretty good job I think.” Ranked one of the best in the nation, Charlotte is working to close these gaps, incentivizing prevention is why FEMA’s CRS program was born.

He explains, “The technology is getting so much better. I mean, aerial technology, planes flying over, and using radar,” and better planning gets homeowners out of the high-risk floodplains before the rain even falls. “We’ve bought out more than 450 homes already since the program started and there’s probably 1500 more homes that could possibly be bought out,” explains Wendel.

And while we can look back at the empty lots, we also need to look ahead to the future, “we’re looking at climate change, regulations, and building in the floodplain and making it more resilient,” says Wendel.

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