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A political wager on flood control

Last week I visited Miami Beach and encountered a surreal scene: standing water in the streets that encroached upon the island’s iconic residences.  Surely the rich and famous would not live in an area prone to floodwaters, I thought.  But as I would later learn, the tides often wash across the man-made island.  I wondered what might happen if it were not merely routine tides, but a hurricane, impacting the island.  As I contemplated this, Hurricane Joaquin was charging toward eastern seaboard.  

As I continued my tour of the city, I also noticed significant road construction in the vicinity. The construction, it turns out, was aimed at reducing the impact of future floods.  The city is installing up to 60 high capacity pumps to return the floodwaters to the sea. This is a major part of a 5-year, $400 million dollar flood mitigation effort led by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.   

{mosads}In speaking with the local residents, I learned that Mayor Levine had campaigned on a flood-mitigation platform in 2012.  He didn’t wait for the federal government to tell him to do it.  Nor did he wait for the feds to fund it.  

With a booming $27 billion real estate market in Miami Beach, taxes and fees from the construction of new seaside condos provide significant funding for the project.  The city also raised storm water fees on businesses and homeowners.  The $100 million of fees already collected will likely enable Miami Beach to fund the project with municipal bonds. This local investment will not only lessen the future flood-related costs for the community, but it also will reduce federal outlays if a major disaster strikes. 

The pumps of course are no panacea.  The mayor is also undertaking other mitigation measures such as modifying existing drainage systems to more effectively channel water away from the city and his experts are contemplating more innovative engineering solutions.   

For the mayor’s efforts to be successful, other stakeholders must embrace mitigation efforts as well. Real estate developers should consider how they could smartly contribute to the Mayor’s vision, such as elevating new structures beyond the reach of the floodwaters—before either a disaster or regulations compel them to do so. 

As someone who advised President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I know that flood control measures are only part of the solution. Not every flood can be prevented and flood insurance is an important complement to mitigation efforts. However, unlike the efforts by Miami Beach to shoulder the financial burden of their mitigation efforts, federal flood insurance rates do not always reflect the risk a particular homeowner faces. Congress recognized this anomaly and in 2012 successfully enacted the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act to require risk-based premiums for homeowners. 

Last year, however, Congress repealed these reforms.  In doing so Congress deemed policy affordability more important than the long-term solvency of the program. While this was surely embraced by high-risk communities, the debt of the National Flood Insurance Program will continue to burden all Americans. That said, measures like those taken in Miami Beach have the potential to reduce the number of flood insurance claims in the future. 

Levine, a successful local businessman who self-funded his $2 million campaign in 2012, was rewarded with a $10,000 a year salary and little authority.  And now that he’s made the biggest political wager of his life on flood control, his future will be in the hands of voters.  I am aware of no other upcoming election where an elected leader’s disaster mitigation efforts might play such a prominent role. The mayor’s willingness to accept political risk to reduce the risk to his citizens—and to the American taxpayer—is laudable.  Elected leaders in other disaster-prone areas should consider making a similar bet on disaster mitigation as a long-term investment in their communities, and the nation.

Kaniewski, PhD, was special assistant to the president for homeland security and senior director for response policy in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow at The George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His Twitter handle is @dankandc.


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