Congress should invest in nature to build disaster-resilient communities

Congress should invest in nature to build disaster-resilient communities
© Getty Images

As an astronaut looking back at Earth from space, I had a view of our planet and its weather systems that had me in awe of its size and scope. As the former leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I also had a firsthand look at the power and devastation that storms and climate change inflict on our communities. Another hurricane season has now begun, and NOAA predicts the U.S. will again see an above-average Atlantic hurricane season. Much effort is put into protecting communities from extreme weather, but those efforts have overlooked the protective value nature itself can provide. It’s time for this to change.

Since NOAA began tracking billion-dollar disasters in 1980, we have seen a trend in increasingly severe and costly weather and climate disasters like hurricanes, floods, wildfire and drought. So far, 2017 was the costliest year on record: 16 separate billion-dollar weather events totaled $306.2 billion in losses. Last year, was another record-breaking year of extreme weather, with 2020 recording the highest-ever number of billion-dollar disasters at 22. While increasing populations in vulnerable areas are a factor in these costly disasters, climate change also plays a role. These dollar values also fail to account for the incalculable human consequences of these events.

Climate change is “loading the dice” for more dangerous weather events in the future. For example, warmer ocean temperatures, higher sea levels and more water vapor in the air cause wetter and wilder storms.

ADVERTISEMENT

We must put nature to work to build community resilience as more intense weather extremes become a reality. Healthy ecosystems like wetlands, oyster reefs and barrier islands serve as “natural infrastructure,” buffering communities from rising seas and increasingly severe storms. Not only can restoring and protecting these natural assets make us more resilient, it will also provide important habitat for birds and other wildlife. There’s an added climate benefit — coastal ecosystems like mangroves and salt marsh can capture and store carbon at up to 10 times the rate of land-based ecosystems, like forests.

Congress and the Biden administration should prioritize natural infrastructure when investing in disaster recovery and hazard mitigation. Natural infrastructure creates more durable and environmentally sustainable projects that provide multiple lines of defense against extreme weather. Climate-smart investments in nature like these also create high-paying jobs in what many are calling the restoration economy and provide a number of additional “sunny day” benefits like recreation for our communities, as Mastic Beach, New York is discovering.

The Long Island community of Mastic Beach is rebuilding salt marsh as part of its efforts to recover from the devastating flooding it experienced during Hurricane Sandy. Sandy damaged over 1,000 homes and stranded more than 100 residents. As it rebuilds, the community is removing a flood-prone road and restoring over 40 acres of salt marsh to buffer against future storm surges. The project will also enhance habitat for the imperiled Saltmarsh Sparrow, improve water quality, and create recreational amenities for the community, with an environmental and social return of $15 for every dollar invested.

NOAA has led important work helping coastal communities build resilience and advance our understanding of the role nature can play in these efforts. But to address the increasing impacts of extreme weather across the nation, we need a “whole-of-government” approach. Agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can play important roles in both helping communities recover from disasters and preparing before disasters strike. Natural infrastructure needs to be a central part of the playbook.

Congress should support and encourage these federal agencies to invest in natural solutions for reducing disaster risks. First, Congress should set aside a portion of FEMA funding to specifically support natural infrastructure projects for reducing disaster risk in communities. This would build off an approach Congress has already taken to catalyze investments in green infrastructure to address water pollution.

ADVERTISEMENT

Second, Congress should permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program at HUD and emphasize natural infrastructure. This would streamline the delivery of disaster aid to lower-income communities that face disproportionate risks from climate impacts, and also codify existing HUD practices of promoting nature-based projects for enhancing community resilience.

An abundance of sound science is telling us that the threats from more extreme weather with climate change are real and growing. As we rebuild from the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to invest in nature delivering win-win-wins for community resilience, wildlife and our economy. 

Kathy Sullivan, Ph.D., is the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017 and author of the book “Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention.” She is currently a fellow of the Potomac Institute and ambassador at Large for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. She also serves on the boards of the International Paper Company and National Audubon Society. A retired member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, Sullivan holds the distinction of being both the first woman to walk in space and the first to dive to Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans.