THE BLOG

A Silver Lining in Sandy? (Part 3)

11/29/2012 05:47 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

This is the last in a three-part post about what the Atlantic Coast can learn in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy from victims of past natural disasters.

When it comes to solving problems, elected officials are inclined to support solutions that allow people to keep behaving as they always have, but with less damage. That's how it has been with America's response to weather-related disasters.

It's a response that won't work anymore. America's experience with weather disasters over the past century proves that the least political risk often imposes the greatest physical and financial risks. What's more, as federal disaster policies are structured today, all taxpayers are helping insure people who choose to live in harm's way and all of us share the cost of cleaning up the messes after disasters occur.

It's questionable whether these policies can be sustained politically; it's almost certain they can't be sustained financially. There is a dangerous confluence of factors coming together like a superstorm: At the same time we are experiencing more extreme weather and after years of destroying natural systems that once protected us, our disaster prevention infrastructure is aging and funds to fix it are scarce.

To be clearer, the natural disasters I refer to in this post are not really natural. They are the extreme weather events influenced by anthropogenic climate change, made worse by the destruction of ecosystems and by poor building practices, and made more deadly by people's insistence on living and working in known hazard areas. They include floods, heat waves, extreme storms, hurricanes, drought and wildfires.

Broadly speaking, federal policies encourage people to build and rebuild in disaster-prone areas. No one with a heart would suggest that government should not help disaster victims; it's quite another thing, however, to help people become victims. The government's one-stop shop for disaster assistance lists 72 programs across 14 agencies, including taxpayer subsidized flood and crop insurance and low-interest loans to repair or reconstruct buildings that have been damaged by weather events.

The bottom line is this: Our current development patterns and disaster prevention strategies will either bust government budgets, or kill more people and destroy more property, or both.

Flood control, increasingly an oxymoron, is a case in point. Since 1936, the principal responsibility for controlling floods in the United States has been assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That revealed two mindsets that still dominate our approach to disaster prevention: first, the solution is to subdue natural systems and second, engineers are smart enough to control natural forces.

History shows, however, that dams, levees and other structural measures can actually increase danger for the populations they are built to protect. Assuming it's safe to live and work below dams and behind levees, people build there. Many of the structures were not built to protect the level of human development or the intensity of weather events we're experiencing today. When a structure fails, or nature exceeds its designed protection levels, or intense rainfall occurs below a dam rather than above it, more property can be destroyed and more people killed than if the structure had never been built.

Numbers help tell this story. According to American Rivers, the inflation-adjusted investment of tax dollars in flood control structures has been $123 billion since 1937. Yet, from the early 1900s to 2000, flood damages in United States increased six-fold, to nearly $6 billion annually. Today, floods remain America's most deadly storm-related killer.

The average age of the 85,000 dams in the United States today is more than 50 years. Experts rate about 15,000 dams as "high hazards," meaning their failure would cause fatalities. More than 4,000 dams have structural deficiencies that make them susceptible to failure.

In 2009, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials reported that the number of deficient dams rose by 137 percent from 1998 to 2008. The Association estimates that $9 billion is needed to repair the most dangerous publicly owned dams, and $7 billion is needed to fix the most dangerous privately owned dams.

To make matters worse, some engineered solutions are like a game of whack-a-mole. When we channelize a river to protect one community from flooding, the greater intensity of water flow causes more damage downriver. One expert calls channelization projects "flood threat transfer devices".

The same term could be applied to structural attempts to prevent coastal erosion; they often transfer the problem to other coastal locations. The 2010 Census found that nearly 160 million Americans -- more than half the U.S. population -- live in coastal counties, up 7.6 percent since 2000. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coastal erosion alone causes $500 million annually in losses to structures and land. The federal government spends an average of $150 million a year on "beach nourishment" and erosion control. Nevertheless, the Heinz Center has estimated that by mid-century erosion may claim one of every four houses located within 500 feet of shoreline.

So, what should we do differently? Here are some suggestions:

Improve hazard mapping. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is in charge of mapping flood hazard areas. The National Academies estimate that these maps are used an estimated 30 million times each year by government agencies, FEMA contractors, lenders, insurance agents, land developers, realtors, community planners, property owners, and others for insurance purposes, land management, mitigation, risk assessment, and disaster response.

In many cases, however, FEMA's maps are outdated. They don't reflect changes in community development, human impacts on wetlands and other ecosystems, building practices or weather trends.

For understandable reasons, FEMA bases its floodplain maps on historic data rather than on projections of how climate change and other factors will increase the size of hazard zones or the vulnerability of people and property in them. Communities are more likely to accept floodplain designations based on experience rather than computer models. But when weather is growing more violent, maps based on history mean we'll always be planning behind the problem rather than anticipating and managing its risks.

According to Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, federal funding for floodplain mapping has been cut from $220 million to $89 million, in part because the Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA resides, focuses far more on other domestic threats such as terrorism. As disaster victims will readily testify, however, extreme weather is a form of domestic terrorism, too, and its potential victims need better intelligence to prevent it.

Larson says the cost of re-mapping the nation would be at least $2 billion, and could be as high as $8 billion over the next 15 years, but much of the cost could be offset if accurate maps result in savings for disaster response and recovery.

Emphasize non-structural measures. Congress and federal agencies have been increasing their emphasis on non-structural disaster mitigation in recent years, but that shift should be accelerated to get ahead of climate change.

In the final analysis, moving people out of harm's way is the most effective and permanent way to resolve the conflict between natural systems and human settlements in those places where hazard zones can be defined. But it is delicate and highly emotional process. Immediately after a disaster, many people acknowledge they must do something different. But what I call "floodplain amnesia" soon sets in, where the lessons of the disaster give way to peoples' desire to return life to normal. And "normal" usually means returning to the way things were.

Rivers and oceans reassert their magnetism. Common sense succumbs to machismo. As one geologist explained, people take the attitude that "We're Americans, damn it. Retreat is a dirty word." For all these reasons, there usually is only a small window of time to persuade disaster victims that moving away is the best protection.

Use tough love. Like it or not, political leaders need to exert tough love in disaster zones. Building owners should be charged market rates rather than subsidized rates in the National Flood Insurance Program. Better premiums should reward people who employ better building practices.

The federal government should impost a "three strikes and you're out" rule in which neighborhoods in definable hazard zones no longer qualify for federal relief after their third weather-related disaster. Several other ideas for reforming subsidized disaster insurance are detailed in an excellent article in the New York Times by Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Howard Kunreuther, co-authors of "At War with the Weather."

Provide victims with information on "sustainable recovery." During the Clinton administration, FEMA set up "sustainable recovery" desks in its Disaster Assistance Centers, offering victims information about relocation, buy-outs, or repair and construction techniques that reduced their risks. FEMA also provided information on rebuilding with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to reduce carbon emissions. It's a practice FEMA should resume.

States and localities also need better information to mitigate their disaster risks. House Republicans voted down a proposal in the president's 2012 budget to create a National Climate Center at NOAA to improve the flow of climate information to state and local officials. Some feared NOAA would use the Center to distribute "climate propaganda." The Obama administration should continue fighting for ample funding to get timely information about climate risks to local decision-makers.

Deploy Sustainable Recovery Teams. The Obama administration should organize and Congress should fund teams of sustainable development experts to work with disaster-affected communities as they consider whether to relocate or rebuild -- the types of teams the U.S. Department of Energy deployed after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993. The principal function of these teams is to expand the menu of choices for disaster victims, identifying design and technology options most victims don't know about.

Create public-private partnerships. During the Clinton era, FEMA administered Project Impact, which provided small grants to help establish disaster-mitigation partnerships between local governments, businesses and community organizations. A few of the partnerships still exist. FEMA should revive Project Impact based on lessons the existing partnerships have learned.

Revisit recommendations from "Human Links to Coastal Disasters." This 2002 report from the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment contains wide-ranging recommendations related to the human and social dimensions of coastal hazards. Among them:

Federal initiatives such as the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, National Flood Insurance Program, beach nourishment programs, tax incentives for second homes, and infrastructure projects, as well as relevant state and local policies and practices, should be reexamined by legislative and executive bodies at all levels to reduce their role as possible stimulators of coastal growth and enhancers of vulnerability in known hazardous areas.

The growing incidents of extreme weather in the United States may finally have produced a political moment when governments at all levels can begin reforming the policies that help victims remain victims. For starters, some of these new ideas might help families in the devastated communities on the East Coast recover in ways that make them safer and stronger than they were before. That's the silver lining in Hurricane Sandy.

Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. For more specific information about the relocation of disaster-affected communities, see Becker's report, "Rebuilding for the Future".

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