Rebuilding for Climate Resilience in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | January 29, 2013, 3:59 pm EDT
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It’s been three months since Hurricane Sandy pounded the coasts of New Jersey and New York (among other places), changing forever our understanding of our vulnerability to coastal flooding. While recovery and rebuilding continues to be a long, hard, painful process, there are encouraging signs that we may have begun an important national conversation about facing climate risks in a more resilient way.

New York and New Jersey break new ground in responding to coastal sea level rise

Governor Christie recently signed emergency regulations adopting FEMA’s updated flood maps in New Jersey’s post-Sandy rebuilding efforts. This comes on the heels of news that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would like to use that state’s Recreate NY-Smart Home program to encourage people to relocate from areas at high risk from flooding related to sea level rise.

Could it be that we are in a new era of recognizing and responding to the threat of sea level rise? This is not going to be an easy conversation and there are no silver bullet solutions. But the good news might be that we have finally begun to grapple with the reality of what climate change means in our daily lives and how we can collectively rise to the challenge of taking action.

Climate change, sea level rise, and our growing exposure to risks

Climate change contributes to sea level rise in important ways: higher temperatures are contributing to melting of glaciers and land-based ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, and they also cause thermal expansion of ocean waters. Even if temperatures increases were to somehow slow, sea level rise will continue to increase well into the future because of the lag time in how these impacts play out. And it turns out that the Northeast Atlantic Coast of the U.S. (North of Cape Hatteras) is a particular hot spot for sea level rise with recent rates of sea level rise increases that were three to four times higher than the global average.

Those rising sea levels are exacerbating coastal flooding, particularly related to storm surge in the wake of coastal storms. Hurricane Sandy packed an additional punch because of its unfortunate, but not unlikely, coincidence with high tides.

Added to this is an established and growing trend for population growth and economic development along our coasts that is putting more people and more valuable assets at risk, as well as eroding natural protective barriers to coastal storms.

Why do FEMA’s new flood maps matter?

FEMA’s coastal flood maps provide an important starting point for understanding risks of flooding. They are also used to set insurance rates for coastal properties. In particular, Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are used to determine flood insurance requirements for residents and where floodplain development regulations apply in a community. The maps were recently updated by FEMA, as periodically required by Congress, so that they accurately reflect the latest assessment of flood hazards. They show that more areas farther inland are expected to flood. They will be finalized in the next year or two.

The new maps are not final yet, and they don’t fully account for the latest projections of sea level rise as corroborated by a FEMA official. Nevertheless, FEMA’s updated recommendations can help improve post-Sandy rebuilding decisions. FEMA’s Advisory Base Flood Elevations (ABFEs) reflect the “1%-annual-chance flood elevations and flood zones” in an area. Compliance with the specifications of the ABFEs can help lower the costs of insurance for a property owner. And Governor Christie is directing his state to proactively use these new ABFEs, with an additional margin of safety, so that property owners can lessen their exposure to future losses.

The Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act of 2012

The 2012 Flood Insurance Reform Act (also known as the Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act of 2012) may bring further improvements to FEMA’s flood maps because it includes provisions to “allow FEMA to update FIRMs to include “relevant information and data” on flood hazards caused by land-use changes, and “future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes,” among other things”. It could also help reduce some of the perverse insurance incentives that exacerbate our exposure to economic losses from flooding.

Making smart choices along our coasts

Climate change is already underway so there’s no question that we will have to deal with increased risk of coastal flooding along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. We cannot avoid all losses but the question is: can we make smarter choices about where and how we build, so that we don’t continue to put increasing numbers of people and expensive property in harm’s way?

Our choices are pretty stark: we can try to accommodate the rising seas, retreat from them, defend our properties with protective measures – or take the riskiest path and do nothing. What’s critical to highlight is that any smart choice we make must take into account unique local geographic, geologic, socioeconomic, and environmental characteristics of our coastal communities. Not all choices may be available or preferable in a particular location, and some combination of them may make the most sense in some instances. And over time our choices may change as sea level rise increases and forecloses some options, as new engineering solutions emerge, or as we develop a deeper understanding of the risks and tradeoffs we face.

Lowering global warming emissions is still urgent

We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even as we work to adapt to unfolding climate change, it remains as urgent as ever to make deep reductions in our global warming emissions. That’s the only sure way to limit the magnitude of future climate impacts.

States lead the way

Governor Christie and Governor Cuomo are taking some pretty unprecedented – and yet common sense – positions. Essentially, this is a call for us to take our heads out of the sand and acknowledge the risks we face in the “new normal.” Simply continuing current patterns of development and rebuilding as before will no longer be optimal or even possible in some cases.

Reconstruction decisions must be informed by good science. Maps that have updated information about coastal flooding zones and account for future projections of sea level rise will provide crucial information to coastal dwellers, for insurers, and for those who buy insurance. Without that, people cannot make smart choices about how best to protect themselves. And we would have a huge market failure with insurance premiums that don’t accurately represent the true risk of investment choices.

But this is not about simply raising costs for coastal dwellers. We also have to provide equitable ways for people to make different and better choices about where they live or rebuild – and that is what Governor Cuomo seems to be talking about. For an individual person in a place with high risk of coastal flooding, relocating their home or business could be costly – and yet not relocating could mean being exposed to similar risks in the future. Using some of the emergency funding for Sandy recovery to provide options to rebuild in safer areas seems a prudent long-term investment, both for the individual and for us as taxpayers. Without that, taxpayers (who fund the National Flood Insurance Program and emergency response packages) could be on the hook for repetitive losses in areas prone to flooding. Similarly, if people choose to rebuild in the same place there should be incentives to build “stronger and higher” to help protect against rising seas.

Will the nation follow?

In his inaugural speech, President Obama used strong language to call attention to the reality of climate change and the need to respond saying, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” Now we need him to follow through, alongside Congress, detailing specific mitigation and adaptation actions to respond to climate change.

Feature image: b0jangles, Flickr Commons

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , , ,

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  • Ariel Hessing

    The RMS (Risk Modeling Solutions)Version 11 U.S. Predictive Wind Model released almost two years ago projected an increase in the frequency and severity of northeastern hurricane and noreaster storm activity tracking toward the coastal states of the northeastern United States, including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusettes in particular. RMS V11 has been painfully accurate, as we have seen Tropical Storm Irene which struck in late August, 2011; the noreaster of late October, 2011; and now the staggering destruction of Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on the New Jersey coastline on October 29, 2012. The storms have increased in frequency, intensity and in their pronounces impact well inland from the Atlantic coast. The U.S. insurance industry will react with restrictions on the availability, pricing and terms of property & casualty insurance that is made available in these northeastern coastal states. This sort of restrictive reaction by the U.S. insurance market is inevitable; it will be effected swiftly; and the changes will be long lasting.

  • Scott

    Great article but could we please drop the wording “Climate Change”? Earth’s climate has been changing for the life of the planet. These words are both benign and a red herring, the real problems are Global Warming and Ocean Acidification.

    • Hello Scott, I’m glad you liked the blogpost. There are probably more scientifically accurate terms such as “anthropogenic (human caused)climate change” or “anthropogenic climate forcing” that one could use. Describing actual impacts such as increasing temperatures, sea level rise and ocean acidification can also help clarify what this means for our daily lives. I do think we are at a point in the public conversation where the term “climate change” is appropriate to use (as is “global warming”) and the recently released draft National Climate Assessment follows that norm.

      • Scott

        Hi Rachel and thanks for your excellent article. Your work is much appreciated.

        Sorry but I don’t believe the words “Climate Change” are an appropriate way to describe the Anthropocene Extinction or Epoch. You may want to review the UCS “Global Warming” Page:

        For too many species our biosphere is failing while at the same time hydrocarbon-man (12C) supercharges Earth’s climate with energy. This is not climate change, it’s suicide by greenwashing. The world, and especially deniers in the US, need to understand what the Anthropocene Epoch is because mankind may not remain around long enough to engrave its own portion of the quaternary period.

        The draft National Climate Assessment is for public review and comment. I’m commenting on your blog because I’m a member of UCS and the phrase “Climate Change” in the draft and your article is a form of greenwashing. Its are a red herring, the problem is Anthropogenic carbon emissions which the public must learn to identify as Accelerated Global Warming.

        Per James Hansen, “Restoring Earth’s energy balance is the fundamental requirement for stabilizing our climate.”

        It doesn’t take a Planetary Climatologist to realize we’ve breached the tipping point or that carbon neutral isn’t going to work. At some point, mankind will need to achieve a state of negative carbon to restore Earth’s energy balance and reverse OA.

        “Unfortunately, nature and the laws of physics cannot compromise—they are what they are.” -Dr. James Hansen. “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

  • anne

    Discontinue federal flood insurance. If you can’t get insurance for your vulnerable property maybe
    you ought to consider moving to higher ground.

    Create instead a federal coastal lands purchase pool so we can convert the most threatened areas into
    buffer zones and park land.

    • Scott

      Anne, private flood insurance doesn’t exist. If it did, we wouldn’t be building in flood zones. This is a form of corporate welfare. The government sells the policies removing “a risk” insurance companies just won’t take. This scheme encourages building in riskier danger zones.

      The NFIP was established in 1968 as a way to protect local communities from financial difficulties caused by flooding. Because most private providers prefer to avoid covering for floods, the NFIP is the only way to ensure your home is safe if flooding should occur. Working in partnership with the local communities, the NFIP offers coverage to areas with proper preventative methods in place. Before you can review flood insurance quotes, you’ll need to find out if your area is eligible for coverage.