Better, Cheaper Protection Against the Next Superstorm Sandy
Ending government insurance subsidies and investing in the land’s natural defenses would save billions in disaster relief.
Collin O'Mara, Scott Carmilani
This op-ed was originally published in the Wall Street Journal.
The second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy this month is a reminder that the U.S. remains woefully unprepared for superstorms and other extreme weather events. Federal statutes continue unwittingly to incentivize development in hazard-prone areas, while fiscal politics prevent sizable investments in resilience measures. This dichotomy distorts private markets and exacerbates the potential liability of the U.S. Treasury.
Fortunately there are policy reforms, which should enjoy bipartisan support, that will reduce risks from extreme storms and floods, reduce exposure for taxpayers, and expand private market opportunities—all in ways that enhance critical fish and wildlife habitat and other natural resources.
That’s why, as leaders of America’s largest conservation organization and a global provider of insurance and reinsurance solutions, we are issuing a call to action in a new report, “Natural Defenses from Hurricanes and Floods.” Protecting the country and ecosystems from extreme weather should be confronted in three ways:
First, fix federal and state laws that encourage risky development by privatizing economic benefits while socializing losses. Subsidies within the National Flood Insurance Program should be phased out with sensitivity to low-income households. In addition, a greater portion of federal disaster-relief funds allocated to state and local governments under the Stafford Act should be dedicated to mitigate hazards. Communities should be required to take proactive mitigation measures to be eligible for assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Congress also should strengthen the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which prevents federal subsidies for risky development on some sensitive coastal lands. It should make restoration projects a priority in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget; and it should finalize Clean Water Act protections of wetlands and streams that absorb millions of gallons of floodwater.
Second, government should encourage clear market signals and provide public information to enable people and investors to make informed, thoughtful decisions about the level of inherent risk of building or living in different locations. There are several efforts under way at the federal and state levels to improve floodplain mapping and other scientific data that will help, but this information has to be accessible, interoperable and understandable for all audiences.
Third, and perhaps most important, major investments in “natural infrastructure” should become the preferred means of defending communities against the dangers of extreme weather. Protecting and restoring wetlands, dunes, living shorelines, upland forests and other open space provides a host of benefits: flood protection, clean water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and increased opportunities for recreation and tourism.
Just as Sandy showed the growing risk from extreme storms in our changing climate, healthy urban marshes in New York, New Jersey and Delaware demonstrated how natural defenses can provide unrivaled protection from the damage they can inflict. For example, a broad coalition of federal, state and local agencies in New York have spent eight years restoring more than 150 acres of wetlands in Jamaica Bay using hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of dredged material and more than a million native marsh plants. These restored marshes held strong during Sandy and helped absorb the storm’s destructive wave action. According to a 2008 study published in the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, coastal wetlands provide as much as $23.2 billion worth of storm protection annually in the U.S.
There are a growing number of natural-infrastructure success stories. Philadelphia, Chicago and Duluth are using healthy wetlands and vegetated floodplains to reduce flooding risks and clean storm water. Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and several Gulf states are restoring wetlands, building living shorelines that rely on plants and their roots instead of concrete to stabilize the shore, and restoring wetlands that can contain and absorb floodwaters to improve resilience and enhance wildlife habitat. California’s Yuba County has made levees protecting its farms and communities from floods more effective and cheaper to maintain by establishing setbacks and restoring native vegetation that allow “room for the river.”
Natural infrastructure is longer-lasting and more cost-effective than levees and sea walls for protection against storms and floods. A Marshall Plan-scale investment in resilience is needed, much of which could come from requiring that existing and future infrastructure appropriations prioritize natural infrastructure. According to a 2005 study by the Multi-hazard Mitigation Council, every $1 spent on risk reduction prevents $4 in disaster costs. Natural infrastructure investments will save lives and billions of dollars in property damage.
Not much is expected from Washington these days, yet reforming disaster preparedness may have bipartisan appeal. For conservatives, our proposed solutions reduce federal expenses and support private markets. For liberals, the solutions protect local communities and restore natural resources. What are we waiting for?