If the U.S. House of Representatives ever decides to do useful work again, one of its top priorities should be an overhaul of federal disaster relief. The government is not prepared to cope with what climate change is throwing at us. Neither are the millions of Americans living in disaster-prone places.
That’s the conclusion of several think tanks, non-profit groups and agencies that have analyzed whether the government’s many disaster-related programs can respond effectively to accelerating climate impacts.
Their conclusions are troubling. They say federal disaster prevention, response and recovery programs are uncoordinated, inequitable, burdened with bureaucracy and unsustainable.
In the meantime, a new study shows the rising cost of hazard insurance is undermining property values in places prone to wildfires, floods and storms. Home ownership will become unaffordable in those places, leading to an out-migration from hazard zones.
Climate change is revealing the weaknesses of government programs and private insurance that have permitted, if not encouraged, people to live in harm’s way. Analysts say the nation’s entire disaster continuum must be reformed because it is “unsustainable.” Three factors are contributing to this proverbial perfect storm:
Climate change: Global warming in the lower 48 states has accelerated 68 times faster than the rest of the world. Four in 10 Americans lived in counties hit by climate-related weather disasters in 2021 alone.
Migration: Thousands of Americans are moving away from flood risks. But in 2021 and 2022, 400,000 more people moved into flood-prone counties than moved out — a more than 100 percent increase from the previous two years. (The same trend is underway regarding heat and fire risks. The population in places prone to wildfires doubled between 1990 and 2010. Nearly 630,000 people moved to counties with the highest heat risk.)
This trend results from poor federal, local and private-sector policies. By helping homeowners rebuild after disasters, insurance and government programs encourage people to live in dangerous places. Cities often allow development in disaster zones to increase property-tax revenues. “The findings underscore a hard truth with dire implications for climate adaptation policy,” the online magazine Grist concludes. “The lion’s share of U.S. flood risk does not stem from the changing nature of storms and seas, but from our decisions about where to build and where to live.”
That is going to change. In a new report, the First Street Foundation predicts that nearly 40 million homes in the U.S. are at risk of losing their hazard insurance. Prominent insurers are pulling out of areas prone to fires, floods and storms because the risks are too high. Homeowners are forced to buy expensive government-run insurance, and the higher premiums undermine home values. “Large numbers of people will need to be relocated away from areas that will be uninsurable,” a First Street expert says. “There is a reckoning on the horizon and it’s not pretty.”
Cost: Disasters are consuming government resources. Last year they cost federal taxpayers more than $165 billion, the third highest on record. Brookings says the government authorized 16 times as many presidential disaster declarations last year as it did in 1988. Brookings’s analysts conclude, “the status quo is no longer tenable.”
Climate impacts are putting the entire U.S. economy at risk. In 2020, a government committee warned, “Climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy.” The Deloitte Economic Institute says if the United States continues business as usual, climate change could cost the economy $14.5 trillion and nearly 900,000 jobs over the next 50 years.
The Center for American Progress, Association of State Floodplain Managers, First Street Foundation, Government Accountability Office, Pew Charitable Trusts and, most recently, Brookings are among the many organizations that have issued recommendations to fix U.S. disaster policies. For example:
- Address weather disasters at their roots. Make decarbonization a fundamental element of disaster policy. Neither Congress nor the fossil energy sector is engaged in “an ambitious, holistic path towards decarbonization,” as Deloitte puts it. The company says an ambitious decarbonization effort would give the economy a $3 trillion boost and 1billion jobs by 2070. Every region in the country could benefit.
- Integrate disaster recovery with other critical goals. In exchange for recovery dollars, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could establish energy efficiency and renewable energy standards for new and repaired buildings, prohibit construction in floodplains, and help localities improve some of the 6 million homes that are unsuitable for living and the more than 30 million housing units with significant health risks for their occupants.
- Consolidate disaster programs: More than 30 federal agencies and programs offer some form of disaster assistance. They are uncoordinated and confusing, and involve complex and lengthy application processes that discourage disaster mitigation. Some experts propose that FEMA become a one-stop-shop to help victims identify and apply for federal assistance. Brookings suggests elevating FEMA to Cabinet status.
- Encourage pre-disaster planning: It is impossible to develop an optimal recovery plan in post-disaster chaos. FEMA could require at-risk communities to create and obtain public buy-in for recovery plans as a condition of future disaster relief. Plans could include provisional building codes, zoning and ordinances that would take effect automatically post-disaster. FEMA has just taken an important step by identifying Community Disaster Resilience Zones — 483 Census tracts at the highest climate change risk and eligible for increased federal assistance.
- Deal with legacy risks: One of the biggest risks involves the 92,000 dams, up to100,000 miles of levees, and untold numbers of coastal floodwalls, berms and other structures built in the last century for flood control. From January 2005 through June 2013 in the United States, there were 173 dam failures and nearly 600 incidents where only rapid intervention prevented catastrophes. We can expect many more because of age, inadequate design and climate change. The administration and Congress must decide whether to repair and upgrade existing structures or emphasize nature-based flood avoidance and “managed retreats” from floodable places.
Relocating flood prone homes, neighborhoods and entire communities is complicated but permanent and cost-effective — and gaining acceptance. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy reports that as climate disasters increase, experts “widely recommend that municipalities move homes and infrastructure out of hazard-prone areas to save lives and money.”
- Create watershed collaborations: Communities and neighborhoods located in watersheds could develop compacts in which they promise to adopt practices that reduce flooding upstream or downstream. Farmers could be rewarded for conservation tilling, rotational grazing, wetland restoration, restorative farming, woodland management and other measures that reduce floods while sequestering carbon dioxide. Nature-based measures like these should be included in any program to credit farmers for reducing or sequestering CO2.
In short, neither the federal government nor the American people are prepared for the many direct and knock-on impacts of global warming but the “storm” is already upon us.
William S. Becker is co-editor of and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” and contributor to the just-published book, Democracy in a Hotter Time. He has served in several state and federal government roles, including executive assistant to the attorney general of Wisconsin. He is currently executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan climate policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.
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