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The risk of flooding is always there

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 | May 14, 2015

Flooding can happen in any month of the year and in nearly any part of the United States. Flooding is one of those events that can occur without a central storm system like a hurricane or other big low pressure area.

One needs only to look at Pensacola Florida where on the last day of April 2014 - nearly 2 feet of rain fell in a single day. This dramatic amount of rain caused widespread damage to homes and businesses and all occurred not from a hurricane or tropical system, but from a stalled out weather front. So much of the flooding that has occurred over the past several decades can be traced not to hurricanes, but more ordinary weather systems with extraordinary amounts of rainfall.

Over the past several decades flooding has resulted in millions of paid losses amounting to billions of dollars in damage. Flooding events are not unique to any season. In January 1996, heavy rain, warm air and fast melting snow resulted in major flooding in the Delaware River Basin in New Jersey. The waters rose to levels not seen since the record flood of 1955. In 1996, the crest for the Delaware at Trenton, N.J. was 22.20 feet or 2.20 feet above flood stage. While that certainly was high, there’s reason to believe flooding could be a lot worse. Late in the summer of 1955, the river rose 8.60 feet above flood stage, which is still a record today.

June 2006 saw one incredible week of rain across the mid-Atlantic region. Take a look at the map below which shows how much rain fell in a 7-day period at the end of that month. Notice anywhere from 10-15 inches of rain in parts of Delaware, New Jersey Pennsylvania and New York. Also notice the number of rivers on which this rain fell.   Several of these rivers exceeded their historic flood stage, which had been set in April of the prior year.

Of course hurricanes along the east coast are nothing new and have been wreaking havoc since the settlers arrived from Europe. As oceans go through cycles of warming and cooling hurricane activity follows. When the Atlantic cooled in the 1970s, hurricane activity slowed. This came on the heels of a very active period of storminess from the early 1930s through much of the 1960s alongside a warmer Atlantic. 

Many past hurricanes struck before names where given to a storm. From 1931 to 1969 many storms of incredible ferocity reached the Gulf Coast states and other made landfall along the eastern seaboard.   These storms occurred during a period where the Atlantic was warmer than average and is why many forecasters believe we are just now entering a period of increasingly high risk for hurricanes along the east coast of the United States.

The hurricanes of 1938 and 1944 are simply known for the year they hit. After naming began in the 50’s, the sisters Carol and Edna of 1954 took very similar paths followed several years later by Donna of 1960. If a storm similar to the 1933 landfall at Virginia Beach, which brought hurricane winds as far north as Long Island, occurred again today damage would be in the billions of dollars. A hurricane landfall at the mouth of Delaware Bay could be a $100 billion storm.

Hurricane activity is cyclical and there are many in the scientific community who believe we are now in a period where hurricanes are going to become more common for the eastern seaboard.

As recently as October 2012, Hurricane Sandy roared ashore with a wall of water and heavy rains. This came on the heels of hurricane Irene whose flooding was the worst seen in Vermont in more than eight decades. Irene caused nearly $16 billion in damage. This of course paled in comparison to Sandy 14 months later. Since Sandy hit some of the most populated areas of the country, the coast of damage was monumental. According to the Federal Emergency Management Association, there was about $50 billion dollars in damage from Sandy, most of it the result of flooding.  While Sandy was unusual it wasn’t unprecedented, nor should we expect a storm like that couldn’t occur again in the near future.

The most expensive storm in U.S. history was of course, Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 caused $105 billion in damage.

It doesn’t matter whether you live on the coast, by a river, the lake or even on mountain slope, flooding can occur nearly anywhere and in any season.   Too much water can come into any area in a very short period of time and devastate both life and property. Having a well thought out plan in case of flooding is one of the best ways to protect you and your family from the hazards that come with these events.

David Epstein is a former WCVB-TV meteorologist in Boston and writes regularly about weather in New England and the nation. He is an InsuraMatch contributing writer.


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