Estimates show mitigation measures such as hardening homes and businesses to wind damage, developing natural or manmade storm-surge barriers for flooding protecting and employing natural barriers and better fireproofing have saved more than 200 lives between 1993 and 2003 and prevented 7,400 injuries over 50 years.
At the same time, spending on disaster mitigation today will reduce the amount of money the federal, state and local governments will be forced to pay for cleanup in the future. Every dollar spent on risk-reducing measures saves four dollars in cleanup and reconstruction expenses down the road. These measures also lower the cost of government and privately provided insurance.
Some mitigation tactics have already been put into place in parts of the country and have a proven track record of success. In Stamford, Connecticut, for example, a 17-foot high barrier built over forty years ago helped thwart approximately $25 million in damage to homes and businesses during Hurricane Sandy. New levees and work to restore and preserve the wetlands of coastal Louisiana have helped the city of New Orleans avoid a reprise of Katrina-like flooding when Hurricane Isaac hit this past August.
Helping people withstand storms is not enough. It is also critical that Congress enact a mitigation policy that discourages housing and business development in high-risk, environmentally sensitive areas. And in some cases, we should not be afraid to relocate properties to ensure floodplains are able to function. After devastating floods and fires ravaged Grand Forks, ND, with federal and state assistance, the community removed flood-prone properties and built levees further back from the river. When floodwaters returned more than a decade later, the city was safe.
A disaster mitigation strategy is not a blank check or an excuse to further expand our national deficit. Policies should be put in place in a fiscally responsible manner, and the federal dollars that we do spend on mitigation should be prioritized for communities that cannot otherwise afford to protect themselves.
A national mitigation strategy would also mean that not only does the federal government create policies that will prevent flooding and devastation, it also means that the strategy will employ the best means of achieving that goal. For instance, a holistic approach to establishing healthy and natural floodplains will protect people at a reduced cost while also providing an array of ecosystem services like pollution reduction, wildlife habitat and more.
Disaster mitigation planning may be expensive, but it does not compare to the cost of doing nothing. According to some estimates, Hurricane Sandy has caused $33 billion in damages to New York State and $50 billion to the region. We cannot continue kicking the can down the road when it comes to federal natural disaster policies.
Sandy should be a clarion call for Congress to put forward a comprehensive blueprint aimed at helping contain the wrath of Mother Nature the next time it strikes. The country’s fiscal health and the safety of our citizens are at stake.
Saks is legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation. Ellis is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.