Although we enjoyed a long stretch where no major hurricane made land fall, the last few years have been different and the storms have caused a great deal of damage, including serious flooding. By contrast, It has been over 60 years since the Netherlands had any serious flooding from either hurricanes or major North Sea storms, even though the Netherlands is mostly below sea level.
The difference is that the Dutch accept the reality of storms and the flooding that they can cause and have developed an aggressive program of mitigation and adaptation. By contrast, we tend to rebuild and tinker at the margins with actions like modifying building codes, erecting barriers, managing flood plains, and the National Flood Insurance Program. Whatever the merits of these and other actions, they have not been sufficient to effectively mitigate flood and hurricane damage.
The damage from floods and hurricanes runs into the tens of billions of dollars each year. According to the National Climatic Data Center floods and hurricanes between 2010 and 2015 cost the nation $34 billion. And in the last three years the costs have run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The National flood insurance reimburses owners who then rebuild in the same places, ensuring future damages unless risk mitigation steps have been taken as part of the rebuilding. Looking back over the past decade, it seems clear that the Federal and state governments are in a vicious cycle working at the margins, incurring losses, and providing insurance reimbursements so that rebuilding can take place.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result, then our approach to addressing hurricane and flood risks is insane. It is time to reassess our approach to dealing with hurricanes and floods and the extent to which adopting the Dutch approach, which would be expensive, would reduce future damages. The Dutch create artificial sand dunes in coastal areas, some of which are large enough to house parking garages underneath. They have constructed dikes, dams, and floodgates to protect against water surges, along with a system of drainage ditches, canals, and pumping stations. There should be a serious study of what Dutch techniques will work in which areas and then a federal-state plan to implement them.
Beyond that, the National Flood Insurance Program should be abolished. States are more than capable of designing flood insurance programs to deal with their specific risks. And, there should be no flood insurance subsidies that shelter some from bearing the full costs of risks where they build. If owners of coastal property had to take the full cost of insurance into account in making their construction decisions, there would likely be fewer houses built so close to shorelines.
There also should be another careful review of FEMA and its mission. FEMA like most bureaucracies seeks larger budgets, more people and more power. Responding to disasters will generate more of those than focusing more on prevention and mitigation. There should be a robust research program on ways to mitigate flood and hurricane damage and related engineering data that states could use to develop state specific programs. Currently, FEMA’s strategic plan has risk management and mitigation as a high priority but it is not clear what FEMA does beyond information sharing that involves forward looking engineering research and drawing on the Netherlands experience to develop best practices for states to implement. There is nothing in the FEMA budget that does that.