As the southeastern US withstands another taxing hurricane season with several record-breaking storms, it’s time start asking the question once again: What should recovery really mean? With so-called “100-year” and even “500-year” storms becoming increasingly common, recovery needs to focus on more than just restoring cities to normalcy as quickly as possible. Recovery and rebuilding efforts need to take into account how to prevent such catastrophic damage in the future too. Sometimes, this could even mean declining to rebuild in some particularly flood-prone areas.
While Hurricane Irma caused less flooding in Florida than was expected, thanks to its path over land, the Caribbean and islands such as Marco Island and the Florida keys were devastated. If the storm had taken a different path, facing a different set of meteorological circumstances, the outcome for mainland Florida could have been much worse. Irma became unusually large as it travelled across the Atlantic, persisting for three consecutive days as a category 5 storm, a record since scientists first began monitoring storms with satellites. Irma also had maximum sustained winds of over 185 miles per hour, persisting for 37 consecutive hours, beating a record set in 2013.
Scientists have said that while climate change may not lead to more frequent storms overall, it could mean the largest storms could become bigger and even more destructive. Rising ocean surface temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture. The Clausius-Clapeyron Equation shows that every half degree Celsius of warming leads to an additional 3 percent of moisture in the air. Hurricane Harvey formed over an ocean that was between 1 and 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than several decades ago, which meant there was around 5 percent more moisture in the air.
With scientists warning the public to brace for more catastrophic storms, rebuilding efforts should look toward improving resilience in the future, instead of simply returning to “normal.” In some cases, this might mean not rebuilding at all in flood-prone areas.
Craig Fugate, FEMA chief under President Obama, argues that federal tax dollars should not go towards rebuilding in areas that will almost certainly require costly rebuilding efforts again in the future.
According to Fugate:
“Why do we have to focus so much on building the capability to respond to these huge disasters when the fact is we’re building and designing in a way that produces the disasters. Quit calling them natural disasters. They’re just a disaster. They’re only a disaster from a hazard like Harvey based upon how and where we built.”
Through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which expires at the end of September, the government has subsidized flood insurance in inherently high risk areas. For nearly 50 years, the NFIP has accepted a costly model of “flood-rebuild-repeat,” which has led to an accumulation of nearly 25 billion dollars of debt. A study by Pew Charitable Trust found that 1 percent of the 5 million properties insured by the program have made nearly a third of all damage claims and led to half of the overall debt.
The NFIP paid to rebuild one home in Houston 16 times over just 18 years, totaling over a million dollars for a house worth less than $120,000. 10,000 properties in Houston’s Harris County have filed repetitive flood claims. This vulnerability has to do with not only where a city develops, but also how. Houston has grown rapidly in recent decades, replacing natural infrastructure, such as the prairie to the city’s west, with pavement, rooftops, and parking lots. These impervious surfaces do not allow water to drain into soil. Instead of being absorbed by the prairie, and then gradually releasing into Galveston Bay, water runs straight into populated areas. All of this is on top of the fact that Houston is located in a low-lying, flood prone area.
It appears that Harvey could outstrip the costs after Hurricane Katrina, with the potential to cost over 180 billion in taxpayer dollars. There is no question that displaced people need somewhere to go, ideally without relocating away from established lives and employment. But rebuilding efforts should consider how to better prepare for a future in which catastrophic storms continue to occur relatively often.
According to Sandra Knight, a University of Maryland senior research engineer:
“When you talk about rebuilding a place like Houston, people’s first thoughts are ‘I want it back the way it was.’ And unfortunately that’s not the best thing to do. As a nation we aren’t planning forward enough. We are developing in places that aren’t sustainable. We need to start doing things differently.”
Instead of simply never developing or rebuilding in flood-prone areas, this can often mean better planning of infrastructure and zoning. Innovative green infrastructure, such as rain gardens that trap water, absorbent pavement, rainwater harvesting systems, plant-covered roofs, and simply planting more trees, can also offer solutions. The mistake would be to simply rebuild and return to normal without considering how to prepare for a future with more intense storms.