Myth No. 3A “100-year flood” is a historic, once-in-a-century disaster.
Describing floods in terms of “100-year,” “500-year” and “1,000-year” often makes people think the disaster was the most severe to occur in that time frame — as encapsulated by President Trump’s tweet calling Harvey a “once in 500 year flood!” He’s not alone. When researchers from the University of California at Berkeley surveyed residents in Stockton, Calif., about their perceived flood risk, they found that although 34 percent claimed familiarity with the term “100-year flood,” only 2.6 percent defined it correctly. The most common responses were some variation of “A major flood comes every 100 years — it’s a worst-case scenario’’ and ‘‘According to history, every 100 years or so, major flooding has occurred in the area and through documented history, they can predict or hypothesize on what to expect and plan accordingly and hopefully correct.”
In fact, the metric communicates the flood risk of a given area : A home in a 100-year flood plain has a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year. In 2018, Ellicott City, Md., experienced its second 1,000-year flood in two years, and with Harvey, Houston faced its third 500-year flood in three years.
That risk constantly changes, because of factors such as the natural movement of rivers, the development of new parcels of land, and climate change’s influence on rainfall, snowmelt, storm surges and sea level. “Because of all the uncertainty, a flood that has a 1 percent annual risk of happening has a high water mark that is best described as a range, not a single maximum point,” according to FiveThirtyEight.
I am not surprised that the majority of respondents in the cited survey got this wrong because I have never heard it explained this way. Either way, the general idea still seems to hold: the major flooding/storm/disaster is relatively rare and the probability is low in a given year that the major problem will occur.
Of course, that does not mean that there is no risk or that residents couldn’t experience multiple occurrences within a short time period (though this is predicted to be rare). Low risk events seem to flummox people when they do actually happen. Furthermore, as noted above, conditions can change and the same storms can create more damage depending on development changes.
So if this commonly used way of discussing risk and occurrences of natural disasters is not effective, what would better communicate the idea to local residents and leaders? Would it be better to provide the percent risk of flooding each year?