Rebuilding for Climate Resilience in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

January 29, 2013 | 3:59 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

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.

This post is part of a series on Hurricane Sandy: Confronting the Realities of Climate Change.

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