Irma, Harvey, Michael, Florence, Katrina. These catastrophic hurricanes resulted in lost lives, displaced families, and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on post-disaster cleanup. As the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the multi-trillion-dollar price tag associated with the response, the nation finds itself on the precipice of additional disasters. Americans are asking questions and pressing policymakers to ensure our nation is prepared to keep our communities resilient and safe.
June 1 marked the official start of another hurricane season that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects will include above-normal activity. The associated risks are further compounded by a possible fall resurgence of the coronavirus, which could very well take place as more severe hurricanes batter American coastal communities. To protect Floridians when this year’s hurricanes inevitably hit, our federal, state, and local leaders must implement pre-disaster crisis mitigation strategies without delay.
The COVID-19 crisis should remind policymakers of the need to implement pre-disaster mitigation measures to reduce costly post-disaster recovery efforts. By preparing before the fact, we can reduce the losses associated with a busy hurricane season that is further complicated by the pandemic.
Pre-disaster approaches will not only protect American lives but also taxpayer dollars, which is particularly crucial during these times of economic hardship. Every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation is estimated to save six dollars in post-disaster recovery. Rather than concentrating resources solely on post-disaster recovery, the U.S. should reform its disaster response apparatus, boost natural coastal protection efforts, and ensure homeowners and renters are aware of the risks associated with living in hurricane and flood-prone areas. Further, many of the frontline communities hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic are also highly vulnerable to the increasing threat of extreme weather disasters. The nation must not only prepare for these events, but do so equitably.
The increasing severity of floods and hurricanes is straining the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a key part of our disaster response system. In recent years, the program has been hit with astronomical losses from a series of powerful storms, including Superstorm Sandy ($7.9 billion), Hurricane Michael ($195 million), and Hurricane Katrina ($16.3 billion). Unfortunately, the situation has led the NFIP to paying out claims at an unsustainable rate, borrowing approximately $40 billion from U.S. taxpayers to date.
Florida taxpayers should not continue to foot the bill for post-disaster cleanup when there are better alternatives at our fingertips. To get this program out of the red, Congress and FEMA must work together to incorporate accurate floodplain mapping, adjust NFIP premiums to reflect accurate levels of risk, facilitate private flood risk transfer, and incentivize pre-disaster mitigation efforts at the local level.
In addition to reforms to the NFIP, our natural coastal defenses offer effective solutions in the face of hurricanes. Maintaining the health of coastal habitats reduces damage caused by hurricanes. Natural habitats like oyster reefs, salt marshes, and mangroves provide a built-in defense for homes and businesses located in coastal areas. These natural features can decrease the height of waves as they approach the shore, reducing flooding and erosion. In fact, coastal residents who had shorelines with natural mangroves typically experienced similar or less damage than homeowners using bulkheads or sea walls as barriers.
Natural disasters take a serious financial toll on property owners and renters. With the 2020 hurricane season underway, it is even more imperative that the public is properly educated and prepared for the associated risks. Hurricane Michael devastated 40,000 homes, inflicted $6 billion in total damages, and left thousands without a roof over their heads. Homeowners and renters need to be made aware of the potential risks associated with living in flood-prone areas. Risk-mapping technology, property-level elevation data, and flood history disclosures can inform local communities about which households are most vulnerable to flooding. With effective community outreach and risk education, Florida’s residents can invest in smart protections before disaster strikes.
The country continues to fight against COVID-19 but remains woefully unprepared to tackle the next calamity. We cannot wait for another disaster to strike before taking action. With a busy hurricane season already upon us, we urge local, state, and federal leaders to invest in pre-disaster mitigation to better protect our communities and lessen the burden on taxpayers who will be left paying for post-disaster recovery during an economic crisis. Now more than ever, the U.S. must consider a rational approach to hurricane disaster policy.
John Huff is the President and CEO of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers; Steve Ellis is the President of Taxpayers for Common Sense; Steve Pociask is the CEO of the American Consumer Institute; Robert Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Natural Resource Defense Council; Jeff Kupfer is President of ConservAmerica; and Dave Sampson is CEO of American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
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