Sow nature’s lessons, reap better protection

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As the coronavirus pandemic stretches us thin, we cannot turn a blind eye to natural disasters, and ways that we can better prepare to protect our communities. Despite COVID-19, no pause button exists on what experts forecast will be a busy Atlantic hurricane season. Midwest communities are getting hit with floods, while wildfire risks mount across the nation.

We have tended to fight nature in the face of many natural disasters: hardening shorelines, straightening rivers and erecting levees. Yet, in many instances, enhancing the protective value of nature itself is proving to be more effective, more resilient and often less expensive than traditional approaches to reduce risks from weather- and climate-related hazards.

How do we know?

As borne out in a new report, a robust and growing body of science reflects how natural systems — like wetlands, forests and coral reefs — have the capacity to effectively protect people and property from mounting natural hazards, and are often a bargain compared to conventional structural approaches like seawalls and levees. Strategies that work with nature to reduce risk also provide cleaner drinking water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat, as well as more recreational opportunities. 

A recent analysis of the 88 tropical storms and hurricanes that struck the United States between 1995 and 2016, for example, found that places with more wetlands sustained significantly less property damage than areas where little or no wetlands remain. Similarly, during Hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Matthew in 2016, coastal North Carolina properties with bulkheads suffered more damage and experienced greater shoreline erosion than properties with natural shorelines. Scientists estimate that, globally, mangrove forests reduce property damage by more than $65 billion and annually protect more than 15 million people from coastal flooding.

In Massachusetts, a project to remove three old dams and restore natural floodplains was 60 percent less expensive than repair and maintenance would have been over 30 years. The project also significantly reduced flood risk to surrounding areas and removed the chance of dam failure. During the devastating impacts of 2019 Midwestern floods, by contrast, dozens of levees along the Missouri River and some of its tributaries were breached or overtopped, endangering lives and property.

Across the country, existing hard infrastructure is aging and in poor condition: dams, levees and inland waterways, for example, all received “D” grades on a recent report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Designed for past climatic conditions, our deteriorating infrastructure will be severely challenged by increasingly severe weather- and climate-related events, as evidenced by the recent catastrophic failure of dams in Edenville, Mich.

We can improve wildfire management too, including being smarter about how we work with nature to reduce the fuel that feeds intense fires. In the 2018 Golf Course Fire, for example, 300 homes were evacuated west of Grand Lake, Colo., but no one lost their life or home thanks to thoughtful fire management planning that included creating targeted fuel breaks and defensible space on lands adjacent to subdivisions. 

If we don’t invest in proven natural approaches to protect people and property, already vulnerable communities will be left exposed. We simply cannot afford to pile on unnecessary risk and suffering, creating a double whammy of damage.

Here’s how we can do better.

Mainstream natural infrastructure across sectors. Congress, for example, should ensure that natural infrastructure is eligible for the Surface Transportation Block Grant program, and increase investments to help states leverage natural features to improve the resilience of their surface transportation infrastructure.

Hold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accountable for requirements to evaluate natural infrastructure project alternatives where practicable for reducing risks from flood and storm damage. Congress should create new incentives for using natural infrastructure flood protections, including by lowering the non-federal sponsor cost-share for Corps projects.

Improve risk assessment and encourage smarter development through better data, including by swiftly completing updated national flood maps. Congress must also reauthorize and reform the National Flood Insurance Program, breaking the chain of short-term program extensions.

Dramatically scale up investments in community resilience and research. Ensure that we invest sufficiently in major funding programs such as FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery and Mitigation funds.

We cannot stop hurricanes, floods and wildfires, which climate change only promises to make more destructive. But we can better work with — rather than against — nature to reduce our risks from these natural hazards.

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, America’s largest conservation organization. Lou Iglesias is president and CEO of Allied World Assurance Company, a global insurance and reinsurance company.

Tags Climate change Environmental protection FEMA flooding floodplains hardening shorelines hurricane season hurricanes levees National Flood Insurance Program natural hazard protections Natural hazards tropical storms wetlands
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