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Tens of thousands of East Tennesseans may not know flood risk

The First National Flood Risk Assessment greatly expands FEMA's flood maps - no longer in just floodplains
Published: Jul. 9, 2020 at 7:06 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -Tens of thousands of homes in East Tennessee are at risk for flooding, and there’s a good chance that the people that live there have no idea, according to a report--the First National Flood Risk Assessment.

“I wouldn’t be viciously concerned about it. It’s such a deep river,” a South Knoxville homeowner named Cody told WVLT News. “It would take a heck of a lot of rain to actually wash it out.” However, he could be wrong about that according to the new data.

WVLT Meteorologist Ben Cathy went to South Knoxville to find some areas experts considered to be in ‘extreme risk’ for flooding over the next few decades. It’s not really an area many think about flooding. Researchers from the First Street Foundation think that will change in the years ahead.

“Our flood factor score is really a 30-year accumulation risk statistic,” Dr. Jeremy Hunter said.

Dr. Hunter and Dr. Ed Kearns put together the Risk Assessment.

“We understand that the environment is changing and despite all the discussions around it, it’s a reality,” Dr. Kearns said. He worked for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for more than a decade before joining the team. “It’s a physical reality that we’re facing.”

Along with top flood experts, they’ve expanded FEMA’s flood risk map, and given it all away for free.

Flood risk for the western suburbs of Knoxville
Flood risk for the western suburbs of Knoxville(Ben Cathey)

“We really want them to be empowered with this knowledge that they’re facing risks,” the experts said. “And to take steps to address that risk.”

Cody lives along the river-front. He didn’t want to disclose his last name, but said he’s a PhD student at the University of Tennessee. He said he got his house at a rock-bottom price since he plans to move in a few years.

“I’m not super concerned about that long-term risk of flood,” he said.

In the Flood Risk Assessment report, maroon dots mean an ‘extreme’ flood threat. There’s a lot of maroon on the map, but not all of it is around the rivers.

“This river here at this point, it has a bend in it,” Cody said. “And they’ve put a lot of rip-rap there down at the bank. I guess just to prevent wash-out.”

Scott County's flood risk for a common storm
Scott County's flood risk for a common storm(Ben Cathey)

Cody is not bearing that risk alone.

“So Knoxville, Chattanooga, the smaller creeks and tributaries that are at the bases of these mountains, we’re finding places that FEMA just doesn’t map.”

Like small rills and creeks near Knoxville that have flooded in recent weeks, they aren’t in your classic floodplain, but we all know how bad they can flood.

“Rainfall is becoming heavier. And this is a risk that we can’t ignore. If we ignore, (it’s) at our own peril,” Dr. Kearns said.

Copyright 2020 WVLT. All rights reserved.

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