As the cost of extreme weather events continues to climb, resilience is key

By Bill Holloway

According to the recently released National Climate Assessment draft by the multi-agency U.S. Global Change Research program, climate change is now increasing the frequency and intensity of severe storms, flooding, droughts, and heat waves, as well as increasing sea level. These extreme weather events are costing taxpayers more each year. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, between fiscal years 2011 and 2013 the federal government spent $136 billion on disaster relief—equivalent to nearly $400 per year from every household in the nation. While the frequency and intensity of natural disasters has increased, over the last decade federal assistance for these types of projects has declined. This is despite FEMA’s estimate that each dollar spent on resilience, or “pre-disaster mitigation,” yields an average $4 reduction in damage.

In planning for extreme weather events, whether hurricane-driven storm surge on the coast or flooding along inland rivers, there are several options: avoid building in particularly vulnerable areas, protect buildings and infrastructure with physical features such as levees and dunes, build structures to withstand the onslaught of extreme weather events, or just “let it ride”, i.e., don’t make any adjustments for extreme weather and hope for the best. Although the last of these options involves the lowest up-front expenditure, it is often the most costly financially and in terms of lost lives.

With its history of hurricanes and beachfront development, the East Coast provides useful lessons about how communities can prepare for extreme weather and the obstacles they face. One of the best ways to protect coastal areas from storm surge is to maintain, or rebuild if necessary, the sand dunes that can keep flood waters at bay. Avalon, New Jersey, exemplifies how communities can withstand even the most severe storms with appropriate advance planning. Avalon, a town of 1,334 residents in Cape May County, came through Sandy virtually unscathed because, following the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, the town constructed a robust dune system and raised buildings in the town above flood-base elevation levels.

Although the potential for devastating hurricanes in New Jersey has long been understood, many areas remained unprotected when Sandy struck. Asbury Park Press has an extensive article detailing the forces that have thwarted flood protection efforts over the years.  Some of the key issues behind the failure to adequately protect coastal areas in the state include:

  • Easements and property rights concerns—In many parts of the state, beachfront homeowners own everything down to the water line. In order to build dunes in these areas, towns have to obtain easements from the landowners. Just a few holdouts, often citing obstructions to their ocean views as the rationale, can make these projects impossible. Eminent domain is generally not an option due to the high costs of compensating landowners for their beachfront.
  • Business interests—Some popular beachfront towns have rejected dunes because they feel obstructing the ocean views from the boardwalk would be bad for business.
  • Desire to maintain local control—In the 1980s, there were efforts to form a state coastal commission that would do master planning and beach engineering along the state’s entire coastline. However, local communities and business interests were concerned about giving up local control over development.

Bridges and transportation infrastructure are critical to the existence of coastal communities.  and how to rebuild them—even whether to rebuild them at all—following natural disasters is a subject of intense debate. The arguments over North Carolina’s Highway 12, which runs 100 miles along the Outer Banks, mirror those in New Jersey’s beach communities. Over the last 2 decades, state and federal taxpayers have spent more than $30 million to fix storm-related damage to the road and some researchers estimate that keeping the road passable through the next century could cost over $1 billion. Public officials and business owners insist that the cost of road upkeep is minor compared to the tax revenues generated by the area’s booming tourism-driven economy. Although ferries have been suggested as an alternative to the highway, which has an average traffic volume of 10,000 cars per day in the summer, many feel that with a maximum capacity of 40 cars per ferry it would be impossible to run a large enough ferry operation to handle the traffic. NC 12 isn’t going anywhere soon, but this highway debate could provide a road map for future resilience efforts depending on how it’s resolved.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.