Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

Providing the same resources to communities regardless of their ability and opportunity to recover results in inequitable outcomes.

Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Public policy to deal with flooding involves a lot of big-ticket items that carry big implications for the future of communities that by choice or by economic necessity stand in harm’s way.

This issue all comes down to one of equity and equality.

Matt Kinshella graphic, source info below*

Equality would ensure every community is provided the same resources and consideration regardless of their characteristics. But, as we have discussed, providing the same resources to a community that has less opportunity and ability to recover as one that is well positioned to do so results in the outcomes we have seen: Wealthy communities become wealthier while poorer communities fall further and further behind.

Equity calls for alleviating these disparities to create the opportunity for equal recovery rates and outcomes among disparate communities.

How do you do that? The following suggestions are a few items that will work toward leveling the playing field.

      • “Rebalance” mitigation efforts with an emphasis on community impact and vulnerability rather than up-front economic loss, the latter putting higher-value properties ahead of those less able to cope on their own.
      • Put more flexibility in FEMA guidelines to ease community burdens and allow for a creative use of funds.
      • Better direct Community Block Development Grant funds to the best place for mitigation efforts — not necessarily within the damage area, but outside if needed. Flood mitigation is best placed upstream.
      • Keep state funds flowing pending the arrival federal aid, which might be delayed after a federal disaster is declared and Iowa stops processing and paying disaster claims.

While these suggestions won’t fix everything, they offer a start to a discussion that needs to start now. Policy makers and recovery agents must take into account social vulnerability and community impacts to a greater extent than they already do if we are to break the downward spiral poor communities find themselves in following disasters.

Previous:
Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

* Graphic credit: Matt Kinshella; culturalorganizing.org blog, “The problem with that equity-vs.equality graphic you’re using.” Copyright Paul Kuttner

Differences in disaster: A series of observations

A benefit-cost analysis on flood mitigation projects can miss the mark on equity if you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks. Communities already best-positioned to recover need less help doing so.

Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

In the first post about findings from my recent report for the Iowa Policy Project, I outlined impacts on low-income residents who have few options than to live in a flood-risk area, and few resources to cope or rebound.

Sand barriers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Flood Center picture.
Photo: Iowa Flood Center

So what about preventing floods? Mitigation measures are great but are usually expensive and may be best positioned well upstream of the location where their protection helps most. Most people look to state or federal grant assistance in funding mitigation projects, but with resources being scarce — and they’re always scarce — a funding criterion has been established to assure mitigation measures must protect at least as much economic value as they cost.

On its face, this benefit cost analysis sounds quite reasonable, but it has a few consequences that, even if unintended, can be foreseen.

Consequence One: If you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks, then communities that may be best positioned to recover without help are given greater resources with which to protect themselves.

Consequence Two: How do you value the cost of displacement, lost economic opportunity from missed jobs, extra commute times, uninsured property loses, community fragmentation? Some of this can be valued, some cannot, and most of it is only clear after a disaster. This makes it hard to implement mitigation when funding justifications must happen first.

Consequence Three: Assuming you justify and pay for mitigation measures, have you just increased the value of the protected land to the point that current residents are suddenly priced out? Gentrification can be spurred by improved environmental and hazard risks as much as it can through beneficial tax codes, new transportation links or economic development incentives.

Previous, Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Next, Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

A lower income family’s experience from flooding can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently

I’ve just wrapped up a paper on the different outcomes people experience following a disastrous flood destroying their world. Not only is a family’s experience different from the world they lived in prior to the flood, but depending on who they are, a lower income family’s experience can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

It’s not shocking to hear that the poor in America live in a different world than anyone else, but Americans living in poverty are more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one. Additionally, when Americans living in poverty recover, they usually recover worse off than they were before disaster struck. This is not the case for the well off. The well off tend to increase their net worth following a disaster.

Why is that? First, and most obvious, if people can afford to live in areas not prone to disaster, they usually choose to do so. Beach-view mansions in Malibu notwithstanding, people don’t usually build their home in known flood plains if they can afford to live elsewhere.

So if you’re located in a dangerous area, you usually can’t afford not to be there. Disaster strikes, the flood waters have started to recede and in preparing to rebuild you look to disaster recovery assistance to help you out. But there’s a problem. Disaster recovery assistance doesn’t come quickly, especially assistance from the federal government. This delay presents a real problem for those unable to absorb the cost of replacement shelter, replacement clothes, increased commutes to work (assuming the job is still there following a disaster).

The delay leaves people desperate for help , willing to jump on any assistance money that appears (even if doing so bars them from participating in larger programs later) or willing to sell their home or property to opportunistic investors who do have the ability to wait out assistance program delays. Having sold, or having grabbed available funds, you are worse off than you were before. Some with more resources can weather the paper storm that follows an actual one, and come out better than they were before.

Next, Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

Alliant proposal: Equity, efficiency failure

The proposed Alliant rate increase is a sweeping denial of equitable treatment of customers and a rejection of environmental responsibility.

Alliant Energy, called Interstate Power and Light (IPL) in Iowa, is proposing a nearly 25 percent increase in its basic service rate. Since Alliant divides its charges to customers into energy, transmission, and basic service, the total bill increase will not be that large but it is a pretty big increase.

Since electric utilities are monopolies, some entity needs to “regulate” their actions. In Iowa this is the role of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), which must decide on the rate increase. The IUB can certainly reduce the proposed rate and can change the way IPL wants to charge individual customers.

Several electricity users in the Decorah area (the city of Decorah, Luther College, Winneshiek Energy District, and others). formed the Decorah Area Group (DAG) and intervened before the IUB to challenge the proposed rate increase. I wrote testimony on rate design for the DAG, and the following is the conclusion of my testimony:

It is apparent to me that IPL’s overriding desire is to sell more electricity at exactly the wrong times. The Company proposes in this case to:

•    Raise the Basic Customer Charge, which is already much higher than that of the other investor-owned electric company in the state; [$13.00 compared to $8.50 charged by MidAmerican Energy. Low-income customers use less electricity so boosting this charge hits them hardest.]

•    Reintroduce declining block rates during the summer peak period, which will likely cause IPL to add capacity for its system; [few utilities give large residential users a break for using more electricity in the summer and so again the smallest users — low income and conservationists are hurt again by this proposal.]

•    Discourage the production of solar power, when encouraging development of solar generation might help IPL to avoid adding generation do accommodate the super peak days; and,

•    Refrain from introducing a “super” off-peak rate that could redirect demand away from peak periods. [Their new meters allow them to make electricity really cheap around midnight so customers could charge electric cars or big capacity water heaters, but they aren’t doing it.]

These proposals, combined with IPL’s actions to convince the Iowa General Assembly to completely bypass the Board and greatly dismantle the state’s energy efficiency programs [in 2017], compels the conclusion that IPL wants to sell more power — not less — especially during the times of the day when IPL’s system is more costly to operate so that IPL will reap more profits.

As noted in the testimony, the Alliant/IPL proposal goes backward on both equity and energy efficiency, which are responsibilities of the IUB to ensure.

IUB’s own mission states that it “regulates utilities to ensure that reasonably priced, reliable, environmentally responsible, and safe utility services are available to all Iowans.” Note — “all Iowans.” This is IUB’s own assurance to even the least-powerful among us that they will be protected in the monopoly marketplace for electricity.

State law [476.1(5)] demands that the IUB “promote the use of energy efficiency strategies by gas and electric utilities required to be rate-regulated.” The Alliant proposal, by contrast, is a recipe for energy inefficiency.

The IUB has limited latitude to deny this rate increase. However, this rate increase is such a sweeping denial of equitable treatment of customers and a rejection of environmental responsibility that they might. The decision will only come after months of more filings and hearings. Stay tuned.

David Osterberg is co-founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He is a former state legislator and is IPP’s lead researcher on energy and environment issues.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Science change and climate change

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint.

Science is getting better, and that is bad news for climate change deniers.

Only two years ago when I last taught a climate change course at the University of Iowa, I informed students that claiming any extreme weather event came from changes in the climate was too uncertain.

Now, that view needs revising. After working with Dr. James Boulter, professor of Chemistry in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, I have learned more.

The Iowa Policy Project worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to have Professor Boulter produce a report on climate change and flooding in Iowa. Working on this paper, I read material from the last three years that that brought me up to date on science’s ability to attribute extreme weather events to greenhouse gas effects on the climate.

Here is one source for my new understanding of what is known as “event attribution.” It is a statement from a report of the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts, in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).[1]

“…(T)he science of event attribution is rapidly advancing, including the understanding of the mechanisms that produce extreme events and the rapid progress in development of methods used for event attribution.”

Attribution has also been a subject addressed in a recent report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.[2]

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint. We should not deny that, even as fossil-fuel supporters recklessly deny the existence of climate change or that we can already see its effects.

As Professor Boulter stated in his conclusion to the IPP report, “Now, as national politics begin to inundate Iowa’s media landscape — much as the floodwaters overran the physical landscape — it is crucial that science-informed discussions of policy responses to climate change be prominent in our personal conversations, candidates’ political statements and debates, and our community discussions across all forms of media.”

 

[1] Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/3/

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” 2016. https://www.nap.edu/read/21852/chapter/1#x

David Osterberg is founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and is IPP’s lead researcher on the environment and energy issues. He is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

How home solar helps everyone

Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity. My own home system shows that.

IPP parody — apologies to Peanuts and the late Charles Shultz

It was a hot and sunny month. … No, this isn’t the opening line of a bad novel; it’s a story about electricity and climate change, and our backyard solar array.

July was indeed hot, which means it was a costly month for electric generation. When the heat index pushes over 100 degrees, and homes and businesses run their air conditioning full tilt, utilities have to purchase more expensive power, from less efficient generating stations, to meet the higher demand. Their costs, and the costs for every consumer, go up.

But here’s the good news. It was a sunny month, which means all those solar arrays at farms and businesses and in people’s back yards were generating power at a great rate. The recently installed array at our home generated 1,749 kilowatt hours of electricity from late June through late July. That was 510 kWh more than we used, for which we received a $14 credit from the utility. (When I use more electricity than I generate, I pay over 12 cents per kWh for the extra; when I generate more than I use, the utility pays me 2.8 cents per kWh.)

But all of that electricity we generated meant that the utility needed to purchase 1,749 kWh less power from the grid, power that was more expensive than average. That savings equates to about the amount of electricity used by two average residential customers in a month.

In the last session of the Iowa Legislature, MidAmerican Energy pushed a bill that would allow them to charge an extra monthly fee to future solar generators, people pretty much like us. That fee would have been enough to make installation of solar unattractive to many, which in turn would have devastated the growing solar installation industry in the state. Their rationale: People like me aren’t paying their share of costs for using the utility’s transmission facilities to sell our home-generated power back to the utility.

Every month I pay a $13.50 “facility charge” regardless of our usage or solar generation. The Iowa Utilities Board, which has to approve all changes in rates proposed by Iowa regulated utilities, is scheduled to undertake a study to see if these kinds of facility charges appropriately reflect the utilities’ cost of accommodating solar generation. But MidAmerican’s proposed bill would have pre-empted the normal rate-setting process with the utilities board and imposed the new fee by legislative fiat before the study was even undertaken to see if any fee was justified.

In pushing their bill, the utility or some unidentified group, sponsored TV advertising to try to get the average Iowan riled up by convincing them that they are subsidizing solar users.

But here’s the thing: Iowa is a summer peaking state. Despite the longer winter heating season, the summer air conditioning season is when electricity usage hits its daily or hourly maximum. All utilities use their most efficient, lower cost generating facilities first, and bring the higher cost facilities on line only when needed. So those high-cost facilities are brought into use just when solar power is doing its thing, when the hours of sunshine are greatest. That reduces the need for that high-cost power, which helps all utility customers.

More importantly, those summer peaks are likely to get worse as climate change worsens. Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity by helping to reverse the trend of global warming. That is good not just for electricity consumers, but for the planet and for our grandchildren.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org