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Popular myths about flooding in Western Washington

November 28, 2011

Floods are the most destructive natural hazard in the Nation, causing more deaths and financial loss in the 20th century than any other natural disaster. The most significant 20 riverine floods of the 20th century for which data are available have killed more than 1,843 people and caused more than $50 billion (uninflated) in damages (Perry, 2000). One of the most common means of describing the severity of a flood is a comparison to the "100-year flood." In the last decade, increasing attention has been paid to the fact that some regions, notably the Pacific Northwest, have experienced numerous so-called "100-year" floods in the span of a few years. Part of the confusion stems from the statistical nature of the "100-year flood" (Greene, 1996); however, another part of the confusion is the fact that the statistics are calculated for specific sites (streamgages) on specific rivers, rather than for a region as a whole. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have begun to investigate how the likelihood of flooding may be determined on a regional basis (Troutman and Karlinger, 2003).