September 7, 2017 / 4:11 PM / 2 years ago

Commentary: How good government can limit hurricane damage

The flood waters have not yet entirely receded from Houston and the Gulf Coast, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott is already talking about damage on the order of $180 billion, which would make Hurricane Harvey the most expensive storm in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma is rolling into South Florida, threatening massive damage to another heavily populated region.

A house destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

As the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. begins to pick up the pieces from the wreckage and another region braces for damages, some serious policy changes are needed at federal, state and city level in every municipality that could be stung by hurricanes like Harvey and Irma.

Here are three ways that sprawling coastal communities can either build back better or work to prevent future storm devastation.

* Fix the National Flood Insurance Program to remove the perverse incentive to build in flood-prone areas.

Beleaguered homeowners in Texas have already filed 73,000 claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal government-backed program was started in 1968. Today it underwrites some five million policies annually, including over 425,000 in the area affected by Harvey. One in four offer subsidized rates that don’t reflect the true cost of providing flood insurance. As Congress returns for its fall session, lawmakers are already grappling with the need to approve emergency funds to keep the $7.5 billion program from going bankrupt before Harvey claims can be fully paid out – a challenge that will only be greater once thousands of Irma-related claims come from Florida.

In theory, the flood insurance program was designed to keep homeowners away from flood-prone areas by enacting strict rules on property within 100-year floodplains. In practice, antiquated flood maps, which don’t account for the increased frequency of severe storms and flooding caused by climate change and over-development of waterfront areas, and an unwillingness to enforce the rules, have wound up perversely subsidizing flood insurance in risky locations. At the same time, four-fifths of homes damaged by Harvey didn’t have flood insurance because they were outside the 100-year flood zone.

While Congress should honor the insurance claims pouring in from Harvey and those likely to arise from Irma, the program must be reformed to use updated flood maps that err on the side of caution – climate change is only going to make these extreme weather events more intense. Terms like “100-year flood” are based on a questionable pretense of reliable climate patterns. The rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was the third “500-year flood” event in Houston in three years. Scaling back subsidies will also discourage homeowners from buying in such flood prone places as they factor in the higher cost of insurance into their home-buying calculation. The 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was supposed to phase out most subsidies, but a public outcry led to the delay of the bill’s implementation until 2018. That’s next year – let’s not postpone common sense again.

* Buy out homeowners in vulnerable areas and manage their retreat.

Retreat is a dirty word in the U.S. It shouldn’t be. The federal government has spent $750 million to buy out some 1,500 homeowners in the New York City metropolitan area in the wake of 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Severely damaged Staten Island neighborhoods like Oakwood Beach are slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature as natural wetlands take over former single-family plots. When the next storm hits New York, there will be fewer risks to human life and less property damage. Rescuers and first responders won’t have to come. There will be very little reconstruction and no flood insurance claims.

How did the government convince homeowners to give up their slice of the American Dream? It paid up to 15 percent over the house’s pre-storm value. For many who feared future flooding, it was too good of an offer to turn down. The upfront cost may be steep, but the long-term savings could finally make the National Flood Insurance Program solvent.

* Rebuild smarter with green infrastructure

Houston and its surrounding suburbs have resisted any effort to plan its growth in an efficient or ecologically sensitive manner. The sprawling city is unlikely to change overnight as a result of Harvey, but as rebuilding takes place, the city and its neighbors will finally have to adopt rules that shape the built environment. Officials in areas hit by Irma, where paved-over wetlands can exacerbate storm surges and floods, will also have to plan their communities to be more climate-resilient.

Chief among any new regulations will be the need to carve out more “green infrastructure” that can absorb future floodwaters. It starts with ripping up asphalt to be replaced by plants and grasses so that water can soak into the ground and installing permeable pavement where a hardscape is still required.

This kind of green makeover doesn’t require returning whole neighborhoods back over to nature. In Philadelphia, the award-winning Green City, Clean Waters program came about in response to an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to build a costly new rainwater storage facility. Instead of spending $2.4 billion on another piece of infrastructure that would eventually fill up too, the Philadelphia Water Department thought creatively about how to manage storm runoff by squeezing in acres of newly permeable land in schoolyards, industrial sites, shopping center parking lots, and individual home lots. As of June 2016, Philly has greened 837.7 acres, a landscape that can divert 1.5 billion gallons of water annually into the ground instead of into local rivers.

China has adopted a similar approach nationwide as it plans to turn its huge urban areas into “sponge cities.” But if Florida or Houston struggle for ideas, it can turn to what New York City did after Sandy when it invited professionals to submit ideas to a prestigious competition, Rebuild by Design. That concept has now spread to seven other cities in North America. Don’t be surprised if more U.S. cities rush to get onto on its list.

About the Author

Gregory Scruggs, AICP is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. He is a coordinator for the Puget Sound Chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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