Strategies to Address Rural Flooding

We all want to live in places that are safe and able to respond to disasters. But too many rural communities and Native nations — especially communities of color and low-wealth places — experience repeated devastating flooding. The drivers of repeated flooding in rural communities are complex, including climate changes, unsustainable approaches to development, and structural inequity. 

Rural people and organizations across the country are gathering around innovative, home-grown solutions to flooding as part of systemic change that envisions and builds thriving rural futures as imagined in our Thrive Rural Framework.

They are working through questions like “What structural challenges keep rural communities from addressing repeated flooding?” and “What will it take for rural communities to drive their own solutions?”.

Bonita Robertson-Hardy, Aspen CSG’s Co-Executive Director, facilitated a virtual discussion of 90+ rural leaders to explore this topic further. The ideas and resources shared in this blog arose from this wide-ranging conversation, which also included a networking bulletin board to facilitate connections and collaboration beyond the event. 

Local Level Strategies

Flooding is experienced locally, and participants shared many local strategies they found effective to drive change and prevent inundation. Mayor Jones of Princeville, NC, elaborated on how repeated flooding had destroyed the morale of this historic Black town. By working on a plan to mitigate future flooding events, the town came together around a revitalization process that built momentum for positive change. 

Many participants echoed the crucial need for response planning for natural disasters. Advance planning makes it easier to coordinate response organizations to mobilize quickly and to access federal resources like FEMA recovery dollars. Writing a “wish list” for community change is also a way that local groups can move fast to take advantage of a silver-lining opportunity from a flood or other disaster event, for example, purchasing land parcels in vulnerable areas that can help mitigate future flooding. 

Working with both public and private landowners is critical to mitigating flooding, and participants suggested using regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions that cross parcels of land along flood-prone areas to reduce the effects of floods. 

Systems Level Strategies

Government, private, and philanthropic investments are all needed to support rural communities as they combat repeated flooding. Baylen Campbell from Invest Appalachia explained how a blend of investment capital and philanthropic match is required to draw down federal resources and that any investment or flood mitigation strategy must consider changing climate conditions to be effective. Invest Appalachia has partnerships with the University of Kentucky’s College of Design and the North Carolina Institute of Climate Sciences to ensure climate, resilience, and adaptive design are included across their investment portfolio. Other participants echoed how essential partnerships can be, particularly regional universities, in helping source quality data to inform planning decisions.

Repeated flooding often prompts conversations of managed retreat, the negotiated movement of entire towns or communities out of flood risk. This logistically challenging undertaking risks the destruction of the place that it intends to save, as history in place and the sense of community are changed and disrupted. Participants grappled with the tensions of wanting families out of crumbling homes, the lack of affordable housing, and the glacial speed of government support for relocation. 

Other participants voiced fears of gentrification, as marginalized communities are pushed to relocate while wealthy, often white, populations have the resources to remain and expand. Understanding gentrification and the historical preservation of rural communities is growing in importance as rural places become spaces of climate refuge.

Overall, the discussion of rural repeated flooding centered on the need for any and all action, whether at the local or systems level, to incorporate strategies to dismantle systemic discrimination based on race, place, and class. 

Shared Resources 

Aspen CSG does not necessarily endorse these resources, but we look forward to exploring them with you.

  • Fight the Flood is an effort in Virginia to work with public and private landowners. 

  • True Pigments is an Ohio-based social enterprise using stream pollution to make paint. 

Devin Deaton, Action Learning Manager with the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, curated this learning reflection. Open Field sessions inform and are informed by Aspen CSG’s Thrive Rural Framework, a tool that aims to help communities and Native nations across the rural United States become healthy places where each and every person belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives. To join the next Open Field session, register for our mailing list.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group