We’ve failed to secure our coasts — we must build resilience before it’s too late

As record-setting rains pummel South Texas and Ellicott City struggles to recover from another deadly flood, we are experiencing more reminders that the United States is facing more severe and frequent extreme weather events. Last year’s hurricane season was the most expensive season to date — and arguably one of the most deadly on record. In the eight months since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck our shores, are our coastal areas better prepared for the coming storms?

In an August 2017 op-ed, we noted that the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which required federal agencies to take sea-level rise into account when building near floodplains, was revoked by the Trump administration just days before these hurricanes arrived. The whopping $200 billion in damages left in their wake are still growing. These storms killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more

{mosads}Tom Bossert, President Trump’s Homeland Security advisor at the time, said in an interview last September that theadministration plans to replace the flood risk rule. That was welcome news since, by FEMA’s own calculations, for every $1 spent on flood preparations, the nation saves $4. 


But to date, no such rule has emerged. 

Nor, unfortunately, has Congress taken the necessary action to reform the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which allows payouts for homes that flood over and over again and charges rates that do not accurately reflect homeowners’ true risk. Despite the White House issuing its own reform proposal and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the retiring chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, leading the charge, Congress has failed to reform the program, temporarily extending its authority six times since last September.

In October 2017, the president signed into law a disaster relief bill that forgave $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt so the program could pay claims from last year’s storms. According to the Congressional Research Service, the program owes $20.5 billion to the U.S. Treasury even after this latest bailout. Congress faces another re-authorization deadline July 31. 

No matter what happens to NFIP, FEMA will need to update its flood maps. Those flood maps help homeowners decide whether to buy flood insurance. Because most FEMA flood maps rely on data from the past and do not accurately reflect either current or future risk, without updated maps, homeowners may not understand that they are vulnerable. 

We give the federal government’s efforts to improve resilience a failing grade — and our coastal communities will bear the consequences. We can no longer be surprised when communities like Houston and Ellicott City suffer multiple “1,000-year floods.” NOAA’s 2018 Atlantic hurricane outlook predicts that this year will be “near or above normal,” with one in four major storms rated Category 3 or higher. These storms are made more dangerous by increased sea levels, which according to NOAA, are rising at ever-increasing rates. We must do whatever we can to become more resilient to natural disasters — whose effects are already exacerbated by climate change — before they strike. But how?

As we recommend in our new report, Building Coastal Resilience for Greater U.S. Security, partnerships are key: Federal, state, and local governments must work with each other and with an inclusive set of coastal stakeholders. States, cities, and counties are already making tremendous efforts to adapt to and mitigate against climate change. From the Hampton Roads Climate Change Adaptation Project to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, stakeholders and local governments are forming unique partnerships to address the climate effects that are impacting their communities. Rapidly expanding and replicating these partnerships could create stronger coastal networks. By working together with local governments, citizen interest groups can implement quick fixes while pushing for longer-term policy changes. 

The private sector can also be an important part of the solution — but they need the right incentives. After Hurricane Harvey, real estate investors were able to buy flood-prone properties faster than the county governments, disrupting the counties’ plans to stop the cycle of flooding and rebuilding. Instead, insurance companies could help drive rebuilding in the right direction by providing reductions in premiums if homeowners invest in resilience. And the federal government could require that homes that have new federally-backed mortgages meet climate-resilient standards before issuing financing.

All along our coastline, we must invest in resilient infrastructure — natural as well as built — that accounts for sea-level rise and protects communities from climate-amplified disasters. We need to provide accurate risk information through FEMA flood maps and reform the NFIP so that insurance is issued on an actuarially sound basis.

We must ensure that our buildings are built to withstand the storms of the future — not just the storms of the past — by thoroughly embedding resilient standards into building codes and zoning laws. We must invest in our communities by developing integrated approaches that strengthen economic security and protect vulnerable populations, particularly on our coasts and islands.

Together, these efforts will enhance our resilience to the damaging impacts of more intense storms and accelerating sea level rise — and prevent needless loss of life. Whether we are rebuilding bridges or restoring hope, we can become resilient only if we work together.

Katharine Mach is director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility. Roger-Mark De Souza, Chris Field, Alice C. Hill and Meaghan Parker contributed to this piece.

De Souza is president and CEO of Sister Cities International. He previously served as the director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience for the Wilson Center.

Field is the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.  

Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council and led the White House process to develop the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.

Parker is partnerships director and senior writer/editor, Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. 

Tags coast Donald Trump flooding Jeb Hensarling Katharine Mach National Flood Insurance Program NFIP Natural disaster Ocean

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