Climate-Fueled Extreme Weather: Protection, Recovery, and Reconstruction
Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, and the ridiculous crew of reactionary climate deniers are unable to deny the reality of Hurricane Ian. Back when he was a congressman, Governor DeSantis voted against federal aid after Hurricane Sandy, but today is asking for 100% federal funding to deal with the clean-up of Ian’s massive destruction. I guess it’s true: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” To their credit, both DeSantis and President Biden have set aside politics to deal with Florida’s humanitarian emergency. Perhaps now that the tragedy of lost homes and communities is becoming enough of a shared American experience we might move disaster funding beyond partisan politics. A warmer planet is making extreme weather events stronger and more frequent, and we need to make our hometowns more resilient and institutionalize the reconstruction of damaged and destroyed homes and communities.
Here in New York, the Corps of Engineers is proposing a $52 billion program of shoreline protection that includes an impressive array of green and gray infrastructure, including massive gates that can control the flow of water into parts of our waterways. This program is 65% funded by the federal government and 35% funded by state and local governments. New York would need to come up with $18 billion to pay our share of the bill. The political feasibility of the proposal has not been tested. Some environmentalists oppose its geoengineering, and if it gets on the political agenda, some politicos will oppose its cost. It’s not clear if the new shoreline protection project will ever be built or will work as advertised, but we must do something to protect our 600 miles of shoreline.
“Managed retreat” is not a feasible option for 8.5 million New Yorkers, so we need to do more to protect ourselves from extreme weather events. This includes some form of shoreline protection along the lines proposed by the Corps. I would like to see the Corps’ new proposal subject to an independent scientific analysis—a sort of peer review for infrastructure—to examine the indirect impacts of the project that might have been missed by the folks who designed it. I’d also like to see some infrastructure funding directed toward additional construction of permeable surfaces to absorb water and holding tanks to store floodwater and manage its release. Coastal protection measures will sometimes fail, and flooding can be caused by massive rapid rainfall as well as storm surges on the coast. We learned during Ian and other extreme weather events that modern building codes can also provide protection against extreme weather events. A recent piece by Allyson Chiu in the Washington Post reported that some buildings in Punta Gorda, Florida survived despite intense impacts. This town seemed to avoid the intense devastation of neighboring communities. According to Chiu:
“In Florida, the “turning point” for building codes came after Hurricane Andrew struck the state in 1992… Andrew, which caused dozens of deaths and an estimated $26 billion in damages, resulted in a statewide building code that included some of the toughest storm-specific codes in the country… For Punta Gorda, the critical rebuild came after Hurricane Charley decimated the city in 2004…Many of the homes and buildings were reconstructed to modernized building codes that were improved again in 2007… Buildings constructed using modern codes have a slew of structural advantages that can help them better withstand extreme weather, including major storms. For instance, updated codes often have stricter requirements around “structural load continuity,” which involves ensuring that a roof is well-connected to walls and the walls are well-connected to the structure’s foundation…”
Still, no system of protection is foolproof. We need to construct a built environment that can survive the impacts of extreme weather on a warming planet. We also need to decarbonize and mitigate as well as adapt to climate change.
At the community or city level, resilience requires measures to try to prevent flooding and to control flooding when prevention fails. But as Ian demonstrates, climate change is taking normal hurricanes and other extreme weather events and supercharging them. Ten years after Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers have taken many steps to waterproof our infrastructure and protect our shoreline, but as we prepare for the next event, we need to avoid the mistake of fighting the last war and do our best to predict and prepare for the next one.
As Ian is teaching millions of Floridians, some extreme weather events are so powerful that no protection strategy will work, and instead, we need to follow first response and recovery operations with reconstruction. I’ve written about America’s inadequate approach to reconstruction on numerous occasions. I believe it is long past time to establish a tax that creates a national fund for reconstruction after extreme weather events. Our nation has developed communities in deserts, forests, floodplains, and places prone to hurricanes. A hundred years ago, our homes and infrastructure were simpler, and fewer of us lived in the pathways of hurricane winds, forest fires, and storm surges. When a weather disaster happens every hundred years, it is an emergency. When it happens every year, it is a routine, periodic occurrence. Fortunately, climate disasters don’t hit the same local communities every year, but it does hit our national community a growing number of times per year. According to NOAA’s Adam B. Smith:
“NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information tracks U.S. weather and climate events that have great economic and societal impacts (www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions). Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 258* weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index, as of January 2020). The cumulative cost for these 258 events exceeds $1.75 trillion… The 14 separate U.S. billion-dollar disasters in 2019 represent the fourth highest total number of events (tied with 2018), following the years 2017 (16), 2011 (16) and 2016 (15). The most recent years of 2019, 2018 and 2017 have each produced more than a dozen billion-dollar disasters to impact the United States—totaling 44 events. This makes a 3-year average of 14.6 billion-dollar disaster events, well above the inflation-adjusted average of 6.5 events per year (1980-2019). On a slightly longer timeframe, the U.S. has experienced 69 separate billion-dollar disaster events over the last 5 years (2015-2019), an inflation-adjusted average of 13.8 events per year. Over the last 40 years (1980-2019), the years with 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events include 1998, 2008, 2011-2012, and 2015-2019.”
One needn’t understand climate change to be able to count, and whatever you think causes these problems, they are growing in frequency, severity, and expense. The federal government’s response to these events has been to enact an emergency supplemental appropriation following each disaster. This is often highly politicized, uncertain, and slow to implement. The funding for these “emergencies” is not based on a dedicated revenue stream but is typically deficit funded. Because it is treated as an emergency, the institutional capacity to deliver reconstruction aid is far less developed than the capacity we’ve built for first response. After Hurricane Sandy, many of my neighbors in Long Beach, New York, waited over a year to obtain the funding they were promised for rebuilding their homes. The uncertainty was particularly hard on children whose education was disrupted.
Just as we pay into social security for old age insurance, each American should pay into community security to rebuild, as a matter of right, a community destroyed by an extreme weather event or an act of terror. We live in a world where we are all subject to risks that are beyond our ability as individuals to control. The essential function of government is the protection of its people. In today’s world, that requires routine reconstruction of homes and communities after they are damaged or destroyed. I recognize that a well-thought-through, organized response to a new fact of life in America is unlikely to emerge in this era of extreme political polarization. An elected official with the political courage to call for higher taxes to pay for reconstruction insurance is equally unlikely. Nevertheless, the alternative is the more expensive, disorganized, and politically divisive approach we now stumble into after each disaster.
It is going to cost all of us more money to maintain our lifestyles on a warming planet. We need to invest in coastal protection, more resilient transport, water, sewage, waste, energy and communications infrastructure, and sturdier homes. We also need to acknowledge that God and nature are far more powerful than we humans and that periodically we will be knocked down and will need to get back up and rebuild. Our ancestors figured out they needed to store grain during good times to survive famine. The modern version is to take some of our wealth and invest it in measures to make our settlements more resilient and to rebuild them when our best efforts to prevent damage prove to not be good enough.