We can’t control where storms hit, but we can harness nature to better protect us

We can’t control where storms hit, but we can harness nature to better protect us
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With June marking the start of another hurricane season, many communities are still reeling from the effects of last year’s trio of devastating storms. Yet, even as experts predict another above-average hurricane season, we are woefully unprepared for the flooding and other damages these storms bring. In many places we are actually making matters worse, in part due to misguided federal policies, by undermining the ability of floodplains, coastal wetlands, and other natural systems to buffer our communities from increasingly severe storms.

New scientific studies have documented that Hurricane Harvey’s sustained and torrential rains were fueled by record high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. Houston’s flooding woes were compounded by decades of development that have replaced vast swaths of native prairies, wetlands, and bayous, which once served as natural sponges to slow and absorb rainfall. Unfortunately, as air and sea temperatures continue their long-term upward trend, intense and destructive storms like Harvey increasingly may become the “new normal.”

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The federal government’s main program for managing flood risks — the National Flood Insurance Program or NFIP — is badly out of date and in need of reform. Although the NFIP was established with the intention of reducing people’s exposure to flooding, the program has actually created a perverse incentive that encourages homes to be built in the path of foreseeable flooding and cultivates a false sense of security among homeowners — all thanks to taxpayer subsidized insurance policies. Congress must reauthorize the federal program by July 31, providing a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement.

 

As the leaders of America’s largest conservation organization and a global provider of insurance and reinsurance solutions, we feel strongly that this reauthorization must include reforms that will better prepare and protect Americans in the face of increasing risks from flooding and extreme weather.

In particular, the program should encourage and emphasize the use of mitigation strategies for communities to prepare for and reduce risks in advance, rather than focusing on responding to flooding disasters after they have occurred. As shown in our recent joint report Natural Defenses in Action, taking advantage of nature is one of the best and most cost-effective ways to reduce flooding and storm risks to our communities.

For example, research published in Scientific Reports found that wetlands, dunes, and other natural habitats along the Atlantic seaboard reduced damages from Superstorm Sandy by more than $625 million. A new study examining the Gulf Coast, and published in the journal PLOS One, concludes that applying nature-based resilience measures in that region, such as restoring wetlands and oyster reefs, could avert around half (ca. $50 billion) of projected storm-related losses over the coming decades.

As Congress works toward reauthorizing the NFIP, there are several ways they could help better protect our environment and communities. First, they can encourage communities to maintain or improve the management of floodplains and the natural habitat they provide, including through the voluntary Community Rating System program. Instead of favoring levees and other engineered solutions, the program should prioritize protection and restoration of floodplains, wetlands, and other natural systems that can reduce flood risks now and into the future.

There is growing bipartisan support for directing the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize these types of natural defenses, including as part of the Water Resource Development Act.

Second, accelerating the creation and adoption of accurate and publically available flood risk maps — and taking into account the growing risks posed by rising sea levels and a changing climate — would empower communities to make smarter development choices and help individual homeowners proactively prepare for potential floods.

Finally, Congress can ensure that the program continues to move toward insurance rates that reflect actual risks, rather than subsidizing new construction in flood zones. Together, these measures would help defend cities and towns against flooding, guide new development toward less risky areas, and conserve natural habitats on which our wildlife depend. 

Although we can’t control when and where storms hit, we do have the ability to better prepare our communities for the increasingly severe storms and floods that are on the horizon. Doing so, however, will not only require changing federal policies that encourage, rather than discourage, building in risky areas, but also adopting policies and practices that more fully take advantage of nature’s ability to protect our communities for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. 

Scott Carmilani is president and CEO of Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, GmbH.