“People who want to live on the waterfront will always live on the waterfront,” says Mark Luther, quoted in a recent Washington Post article (http://wapo.st/2wlxeyr). He’s an oceanographer living in St. Petersburg, FL, and from his shorefront home in a neighborhood known as the Venetian Isles he frequently watches dolphins pass by. Yet he’s also watched as flooding in the neighborhood steadily worsens.
He moved into his home 24 years ago, long before the prospect of sea level rise was on the average person’s radar, and he still believes he could sell the home for a good price today, even as he acknowledges that one major storm would likely destroy it. Many experts consider the Tampa Bay area the most vulnerable in the nation to hurricane damage. And yet people still flock there, and many of them—those who can afford it—want to be as close to the water as possible.
In this space in our last issue, I mentioned an upcoming article in our sister publication Stormwater about the science of forecasting hurricanes and predicting where wind damage and flooding—both from rainfall and from storm surge—are likely to occur. In the upcoming October issue of that magazine, the same author writes about the financial cost of such storms and how people protect themselves—and how that might soon be changing.
The article examines the history and potential future directions of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP); many have complained that it unfairly distributes the financial burden of flood damage. Because it emphasizes affordability for all consumers, the premiums don’t cover the amount the program pays for claims, leading to a more than $24 billion deficit that’s ultimately picked up by taxpayers who don’t participate in the program at all. One way to remedy that problem, in this or any future program, would be to spread the risk and encourage more people to buy flood insurance, much as the healthcare insurance market seeks to motivate younger and healthier people to participate.
Another mechanism for limiting financial loss is the Community Rating System (CRS), which helps lower insurance rates for individual policyholders—but only if the community they live in has, as a whole, taken real steps to reduce risk. In other words, what you spend, and how well you’re protected in the event of a flood, depends very much on what your neighbors do and what infrastructure improvements they’re willing to pay for before any damage occurs, such as strengthening levees or anteing up for a beach nourishment project.
A pilot program within the CRS provides financial assistance for states and local governments to purchase flood-damaged properties from their owners, rather than allowing the owners to rebuild—sometimes more than once—on the same flood-prone lots. This measure alone goes a long way toward addressing the frustration many people have with the NFIP.
If we consider potential storm damage—erosion, flood damage, and total loss of homes and other infrastructure—purely in economic terms, what do you think it would take to discourage people from building in harm’s way? Do you think long-term fixes are more likely to involve better technology, such as more accurate forecasting, stronger shoreline protection, floodgates, and elevated structures? Or will they depend on us moving away from the most vulnerable areas? Share your thoughts in a comment on our website or email [email protected].