The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is under water with billions of dollars of debt, and currently is supported by a four-month funding extension approved by Congress in July.

The future of NFIP may be uncertain, but with with extreme rainfall in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin this summer, there is growing certainty that more options for flood insurance are needed.

Originally designed in the 1960s as an alternative to disaster relief, NFIP came at a time when private insurance companies were not willing to cover flooding. Currently, less than four percent of flood policies in the country are carried by private insurers.

This region is definitely getting wetter, according to Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist, Minnesota State Climate Office with the Department of Natural Resources. Based on trends during the last several decades and the best understanding of scientific research, more frequent heavy rain and larger rainfall records are likely to continue.

“We are shifting to a warmer and wetter climate, and we are seeing bigger versions of the biggest rain storms,” Blumenfeld said.

Overall in Northeastern Minnesota, annual precipitation is increasing, but Blumenfeld suggests using a critical eye to interpret the more dramatic-sounding effects.

“We have to be careful when we talk about increasing frequency of really catastrophic rains like the one that caused so much damage in Duluth in 2012. Science tells us those types of events are becoming more common, but that means instead of happening once every 50 years, it’s still rare at once every 25 years,” he said.

Statistically, a 25 percent increase is rather shocking, but in reality, Blumenfeld says it’s really just a little more extreme version of the climate we’ve always had. Still, he notes that adapting to the likely changes is a sound course.

“With the climate that we already have had for decades, we are way under-insured, and now we’ve identified parts of the climate that are changing and we will keep falling behind in all areas of risk management unless we make changes now,” Blumenfeld said. 

That preparedness includes not only flood insurance, but also better road, drainage and structure design.

A Great Lakes coastal mapping update under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is underway, with Douglas County in Wisconsin having moved through public comments and meetings on their updated draft map.

Melissa Janssen, risk analysis branch chief for FEMA’s region 5, which includes Minnesota and Wisconsin, says that coastal studies for mapping are approached differently than a typical riverine flooding evaluation, with coastlines assessed in terms of lake wave action.

Earlier this summer, FEMA’s coastal study group met with officials of Lake, St. Louis and Douglas counties to share drafts of working flood maps and share available data and comments. The second preliminary draft maps are expected to be completed by 2022.

Flood mapping in Northeastern Minnesota has been completed at a variety of different times. Lake County’s maps were done in the 1970s and early 80s, and it was later concluded they did not accurately reflect high risk areas. Since then, they have been converted to “no special flood hazard area.” Janssen says that Cook County will receive updated mapping at some point in the future.

“We do encourage everyone to get flood insurance, even if it’s not mandatory in those places that don’t participate in the federal insurance program,” Janssen said.

Both Douglas and St. Louis counties contain high flood risk areas. Currently in St. Louis County, there are 327 flood insurance policies. Douglas County has 66 and Lake County has nine through the National Flood Insurance Program.

“Flood insurance gives a community the ability to recover and rebuild quicker,” said Eric Kuklewski, floodplain management and insurance branch chief for FEMA’s region 5. If disaster relief is given, it’s usually a loan that has to be repaid, unlike insurance, which typically will pay whether there is a disaster declaration or not, and at a higher rate, Kuklewski said.

From 1996 to 2016, Minnesota disaster relief claims averaged $4,600, whereas payouts for flood insurance claims during that same period averaged $16,200.

Even if a homeowner does not reside in a designated high flood risk zone, they can still buy flood insurance. Any licensed agent is able to write a flood insurance policy whether they have an agreement with FEMA or not.

Flood insurance is not typically part of the standard homeowners insurance policy, yet some statistics say that the risk of a home flooding even in low or moderate flood risk areas is still many times higher than damage from a house fire.

Some argue that without updated maps, homeowners can’t take appropriate action to prepare for future storms, but FEMA staff disagree. While updated maps are a good risk evaluation tool, they say most property owners should carry flood insurance, even in moderate and low risk areas. Often, localized rain flood events never rise to the level of a major disaster declaration, despite the fact that individual properties may have experienced a disaster. 

“Our goal is to help people recognize that as a nation, we are under-insured for floods, and disaster relief is not always an option, while insurance can help communities have resiliency,” Kuklewski said.

Beyond buying flood insurance, Tom Beery, University of Minnesota Sea Grant program Coastal Resilience Extension Educator, says that whole communities should be called to action to implement flood prevention initiatives. Green stormwater infrastructure is one way Sea Grant  is hoping to protect local communities from flood damage.

“Green infrastructure is simply how we design our community to reclaim nature’s functions and harness nature’s ability to improve our communities,” Beery said.

Pollination, noise buffering and air filtering are some of the functions that green infrastructure can contribute, but more critically in terms of climate change projections, Beery says that it can be a powerful tool for stormwater management.

“Retention ponds, rain gardens, tree planting and perennial gardens slow the pulse of floodwater during intense storms and in doing so, prevent downstream damage and water quality degradation,” Beery stated.

Retaining undeveloped upland forests and wetlands can also protect roads from erosion, undercutting and washouts, as well as preventing flooding in buildings.

Beery emphasizes that work to protect and invest in green infrastructure will not only help reduce economic costs from large rain strorms, but also contribute to the quality of life.

“This is not just future flood prevention, but current life enhancement. Our roads can be better now, our developed areas greener and more pleasant for the people that live and work in those areas. Our growing recreation economy can continue to grow and continue to make Duluth stand out as an outdoor recreation destination,” Beery said.

MNSea Grant is preparing a guide for small business and homeowners to incorporate green stormwater management. It is expected to be published by this winter.

Kitty Mayo is a North Shore-based freelance writer.