Swamped in red ink by every monster storm

Three of the five most expensive hurricanes in our nation’s history occurred last year. Harvey, Maria and Irma did $265 billion in combined property damage. Storms are getting worse. And costs and consequences are increasing dramatically for these reasons:

  • Climate change means rising seas that intensify storm surges and flooding.
  • The exposure to losses has grown dramatically as we’ve built expensive structures near the shore.
  • The increased paving of vulnerable communities leaves less exposed earth to soak up floodwaters.

And we are doing a wretched job of hardening against risk and making good decisions about how to rebuild.

National flood insurance deep in debt

One shortcoming that grabs headlines is the National Flood Insurance Program, and it is a mess. The program is $25 billion in debt, its flood maps are old and inaccurate, and while New Yorkers complain about being required to buy policies and the cost, their rates are often too low.

Politicians representing coastal states like New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand take the popular view that policyholder costs shouldn’t increase. But who should pay? And even if the NFIP did have the fee structure necessary to break even, it would ignore the nation’s much larger problem of paying for the damage not covered by insurance of any kind.

After superstorm Sandy, for instance, the NFIP paid $9 billion to policyholders. But the federal government spent another $56 billion on relief for residents, communities and municipalities not covered by federal flood insurance.

Maps of New York City in 2045, when the ocean is expected to have risen 18 inches, show communities like the Rockaways, Staten Island and lower Manhattan suffering some flooding with every full moon and being submerged after every significant storm. Yet when federal funds were distributed to rebuild homes after Sandy, many were not even elevated when they were rebuilt.

Last week, as residents were clearing the wreckage and tallying up the cost of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, the Senate passed legislation that would create new pre-disaster mitigation funding. The move, both encouraging in its emphasis and depressing in how much it will leave undone, will help the nation prepare for hurricanes, floods and other disasters. The measure also has provisions to help communities improve building standards, probably the biggest priority of all.

Spend more to prepare

The funding will vary because it will come as a percentage of money spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2017, for instance, it would have added up to about $600 million. That helps. But to dedicate so little to prevention is foolish. From 2005 to 2014, FEMA spent $277 billion to rebuild communities after disasters, but only $600 million on pre-disaster mitigation. That’s a ratio that would make more sense if it were reversed.

Federal law and local building codes should demand that all new construction be built to withstand flooding. Flood insurance should be priced to cover a property’s risk, with some subsidies for low-income residents. And any plan to restore properties damaged by flooding should be examined with a hypercritical eye. Weather risks are getting worse fast. Our response must get better faster.