Why current disaster planning doesn’t cut it, and what we can do instead

In the era of climate change, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. It’s time disaster planning caught up with our present reality.

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By Ed Thomas and Laurie Mazur

A year ago, torrential rains in southeastern Louisiana led to flooding that cost 13 people their lives and damaged some 160,000 buildings — many irreparably. In the hardest-hit areas, such as Livingston Parish, three quarters of homes are considered a “total loss

Worse, many of those who lost their homes did not have flood insurance. Even in the parts of Louisiana at highest risk of flooding, only 42 percent of homeowners are insured. But the floods of August deluged so-called low- and moderate-risk areas, where only 12.5% carry insurance.

Why were the people of Louisiana so woefully unprepared? First, in Louisiana and elsewhere, many people simply don’t know they are at risk. Only homes in designated “special flood hazard areas” are required to carry flood insurance — and then only if they have a federally supported mortgage. But the FEMA maps that designate flood risk are flawed in several ways. Notably, they are based on what happened in the past. In the era of climate change, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future.

Of course, it is difficult to tie the Louisiana floods — or any other single weather event — to climate change. But what we are seeing today is consistent with a highly uncertain, variable climate, indeed a changing climate. It is getting hotter, and a warmer atmosphere carries more moisture — which means heavier rains and flooding. The Louisiana flood was widely called a “500-year storm” — meaning that there is just a one-in-500 chance of it occurring in any given year. Given the paucity of accurate weather records, it is debatable whether we were ever able to calculate such odds. But in a changing climate, it is clearly impossible. Hence, last year’s Louisiana flood was the eighth 500-year flood we’ve had in the U.S. since May of 2015.

We have entered an era in which our former assumptions about risk no longer apply. Flood planning must reflect this new reality. There has been encouraging movement in this direction: spurred by an Executive Order from former President Obama, FEMA proposed rules requiring that structures in the floodplain be built to higher standards. While they only apply to buildings financed with federal funds, these rules have the potential for much broader impact. Indeed, there is a strong legal argument to be made that the President’s Executive Order represents a new standard of care, which engineers, architects and others in the development community ignore at their peril.

Still, that leaves plenty of folks at greater risk than they know. When disaster strikes, as it did in Louisiana, the uninsured can face catastrophic losses. Flood victims may be eligible for various kinds of assistance (as described in the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association’s guide, A Living Mosaic). However, this disaster relief process — while well intentioned — is incredibly complex and convoluted.

It is also costly, especially for U.S. taxpayers. While insurance companies, state and local governments, individuals and charities all contribute to disaster relief, the federal government pays a huge — and growing — share of the expense. Indeed, the share of disaster relief paid by the feds has grown from about 25 percent before Hurricane Katrina to nearly 70 percent today. U.S. taxpayers have shelled out approximately $1 trillionin disaster relief since 1980. That’s money we won’t have to invest in our nation tomorrow.

So how can we help flood victims, while protecting our shared future?

One possible part of the solution — as suggested by John Romano in the Tampa Bay Times, and others — is to require flood protection as a standard part of homeowners insurance. Right now, the only people who must buy flood insurance are those at greatest risk. It’s as if the only people who bought health insurance were those with terminal cancer. Predictably, that makes flood insurance prohibitively expensive for both homeowners and private insurers. It also helps explain why the National Flood Insurance Program — the insurer of last resort — was $23 billion in debt before the Louisiana floods.

Requiring flood insurance of all — with higher rates for those in the most risky areas — would spread the burden more fairly. It would also reflect the changing landscape of risk. Such an effort would need to be developed very carefully to avoid unintended consequences. For example, we need to make sure that affluent homeowners who build houses in coastal areas do not “externalize” the risk to everyone else. At the same time, it is crucial to build in protections for low-income people in flood-prone areas, to prevent what Virginia Eubanks, writing in The Nation, calls “climate redlining.”

Any solution to our current disastrous spiral will stir backlash. Some will decry unwarranted government mandates; others will worry about costs for homeowners. Still others will deny that the climate is changing, and claim there is no need to adjust to a new reality.

But resisting change is costly, too. Today, we are lurching from crisis to crisis, with no end in sight. Floods and other disasters devastate the most vulnerable among us, while taxpayers and survivors pay for endless cycles of destruction and rebuilding.

Instead, we can snap out of our collective denial, and accept that the future will not be like the past. Only then can we protect ourselves from the floods (and the tornadoes, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, and storm surges) to come — and build a resilient future for all.

Ed Thomas is a Floodplain Manager, and Disaster Response and Recovery Specialist, who is also an Attorney. He is the President of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association. Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

A version of this article originally appeared September 9, 2016 in The Hill