Hurricane Harvey: Loss Recovery is not Sustainable

With Hurricane Harvey’s arrival, I felt it was important to continue the discussion on the


increasing vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding. Particularly, what cities should be doing to shift from the business as usual reactive strategy of loss recovery and hunkering down, to a more proactive move toward land-use strategy and green infrastructure investment that will reduce climate risk vulnerability.

The science is pretty clear that with the warming of the climate, storm intensity and flooding are likely to increase, particularly along the Gulf Coast. This was well documented in a recent study by NOAA that covered the 2016 1,000 year flash floods in Louisiana. With Harvey, there are estimates of 20 to 25 inches of rain. This is significantly above what our storm water infrastructure can manage. If projections remain as they are as of the writing of this post, the Gulf Coast is going experience flooding levels that it has rarely seen. This will result in significant property damage and a very large number of flood claims being made to the insurance industry, at least by those who have flood insurance. Unfortunately a good portion of residential and commercial properties are under insured or not insured at all.

The insurance industry can cover only so many claims and participate in so many loss recovery events before it stops insuring areas or the premiums become so high properties are not able to purchase adequate coverage. This concern was recently discussed in the Yale Climate Connections podcast titled “Waters Rise, and so does the Cost of Coastal Insurance.” In this podcast, Larry Filer with the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency at Old Dominion University, discussed the rising costs of insuring properties along coastal areas and how with current infrastructure that cannot adequately manage stormwater, insuring these properties is not sustainable. One of the more harrowing remarks made by Filer was “The biggest fear and the biggest concern is that you wake up one day and you realize in your city that you have a large swath of properties that are uninsurable.”

To add to the decreasing ability of insurance companies and programs being unable to adequately insure properties along the Gulf Coast, the federal government, beyond the Federal Flood Insurance program, is also pushing back a bit. According to new FEMA Director Brock Long, local communities need to take more responsibility in reducing natural disaster risk and be less dependent on the federal government to bail them out due to poor land use and infrastructure planning. The Trump appointed Director is actually pushing an idea that was started with the Obama Administration. The thought is to have state and local governments take greater responsibility and pay more for natural disasters, particularly when floods and hurricanes hit. In a recent Bloomberg News report, Long stated ““I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward…We have to find ways to comprehensively become more resilient.” Here he means the federal taxpayers should not subsidize the risky behavior of local communities. Environmental groups have been pushing for this approach for years. By reducing FEMA’s role in loss recovery, cities and counties will be pushed to take more risk mitigating action, such as adopting and enforcing resilience standards, retreating from flood prone areas, implementing more effective and robust storm water infrastructure and low impact development.

There is little excuse for Cities not to take a greater role in reducing their climate risk. The writing’s on the wall. First, the insurance industry and federal government are saying that can’t sustain the current level of loss recovery payouts and rebuilds. Second, the climate models are not painting a pretty picture of what the future holds.

The time has come for cities to take a more serious look at mitigating climate risk, i.e. floods, droughts, extreme heat, etc. I have discussed in previous blogs about ways that Cities can pay for resilient infrastructure. (here and here) There are also resilience standards that Cities can start putting in place. (here and here) But a first step is to determine risk and start developing a plan. A great free resource is the US Resilience Toolkit. It is a very helpful tool that presents a climate planning framework, tools to identify risk and opportunities and case studies of what other communities are doing. There are organizations around the country that are trying to get communities to become more resilient and should be engaged by local coastal communities to determine options. Also, you can check out Boswell et al’s book on Local Climate Action Planning. It has been out a few years, but is a good primer to get things started.

As I sit here in Houston, just witnessing 2 inches of rain in a 40 minute period, watching water coming over the curb, and with a forecast of another 20 inches by Wednesday, I look to our community leaders and ask when they will move from business as usual reactive strategy of hunkering down and loss recovery, to a more  proactive approach of investing in the appropriate infrastructure. The storms will continue to come, but the possible damage and loss these storms bring is not inevitable, if the right steps are taken.


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Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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