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Know Your Madisonian: As flooding, hurricanes increase and intensify, policy adviser testifies to Congress on problem

September 28, 2018

Larry Larson is used to meetings being canceled or cut short.

As senior policy adviser for the Madison-based Association of Floodplain Managers, Larson travels to Washington, D.C., once or twice a month to provide recommendations on flood mitigation policy to Congress and federal agencies.

A meeting Larson had earlier this month on Capitol Hill with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.

In August 2005, Larson’s discussion with FEMA officials on levee policy was cut short because of Hurricane Katrina.

Larson, a Dane County resident since 1967, has testified to Congress on flood policy at least 30 times. In the last decade, he’s noticed members of Congress talking more about flood mitigation than ever before.

“Because this stuff keeps happening over and over again and they realize we have to do something to stop it,” he said.

How did this national group get started? And why is it located in Madison instead of near a coast?

There were about six of us that started it in 1977, the six Midwestern states in FEMA’s Region V. I was the Wisconsin representative working for state Department of Natural Resources at the time running the state’s floodplain management and dam safety program. FEMA was planning to meet Region V representatives in St. Paul. We had our meeting and 19 states showed up. That’s when we realized this is not a Region V issue, it’s a national one. I volunteered to be executive director of the group until I retired from DNR in 1997 after 30 years there. At that point, the group said we need you to work for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. And I said, “OK, guess where the office is going to be?” So that’s why we’re housed here in Wisconsin.

Is the Association of State Floodplain Managers the go-to organization for Congress to get recommendations on fixing flooding-related problems?

We’re probably the biggest (group) because we have 18,000 members and 50 percent of our members are at the local level. (Those members) might be, for example, the city of Madison employee issuing building permits or development permits and considering flood hazards when they do that.

How do you help local government?

In 1999, we set up a certification program for floodplain managers. There are now 10,000 certified floodplain managers in the United States. That has probably done more to improve managing flood risk in the nation than anything else because all of a sudden you have that local person ... making those decisions on how development occurs. They set the rules. Some of them do it well. Some of them ... have problems. We try to help them do it in a way that not only makes their communities more resilient but also protect the public, public safety and reduce property damage at the same time.

And how does working with local government tie into your meetings on Capitol Hill?

The Department of Transportation builds bridges across floodplains. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) gets as much money in disaster relief as FEMA does. There’s the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey. There’s 26 federal agencies that impact flooding one way or the other. Over the years, I probably have met with all of the agencies. We don’t ask for money. We don’t take positions on specific projects. We look at the policies and try to improve it. We have a credibility in Washington now where they call us to testify.

What is hurricane season like for you?

What’s interesting is that we’re almost having hurricane season here in Wisconsin now. We had a little bit of that this summer, didn’t we? It is not at all ordinary for us to have a 14-inch rainfall, which we had in parts of Dane County this year. That’s way off the charts. We’re getting these systems that just sit here and dump water. We don’t design for those kinds of rainfall events. We’re seeing more and more of these in Wisconsin and along the coasts. That will continue to happen. You can argue about what’s causing it all you want, but the reality is we have to adapt to it.

What do people misunderstand or fail to understand about flooding in terms of policy?

To me, the 500-pound gorilla in the room is the Disaster Relief Act. It’s the perverse incentive that leads locals in some states to do the wrong thing because their view is they want development because it brings us taxes. But it will flood and the federal taxpayer will bail them out. The bigger the disaster, the larger percentage of federal money you get for public assistance.

Where are places that are doing flood mitigation right?

Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District has a very active program, for example. They have a goal to buy out 100 percent of the houses in the 100-year-floodplain. And they’re about 80 percent of the way there. When a flood goes through, it never makes the news because nobody’s there. There are ways to do this but it takes progressive thinking on the part of the communities.

— Interview by Kelly Meyerhofer

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