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It’s often stated that Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That might be worth considering as U.S. taxpayers are preparing to be saddled with another multi-billion-dollar financial hit to rebuild a wide swath of southwestern Florida recently devastated by Hurricane Ian.
The cost of weather disasters is skyrocketing in the U.S., and around the world, the result of the changing climate. A warmer planet generates more frequent and intense storms and the path of destruction is being seen all across the country. Yet nowhere is the devastation as costly as what we’re seeing along our coasts, particularly the Gulf Coast, which is so prone to hurricanes.
The trend line is ominous. Last year, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar-plus weather disasters, which caused just under $150 billion in damages. And that was a modest improvement over 2020, when the U.S. set a new record for weather-related destruction.
Over the past five years, the cost of billion-dollar disasters alone in the U.S. has totaled $742 billion, a five-year average that’s triple the 40-year average. And that’s in adjusted dollars, so the trend line isn’t exaggerated by inflation. The cost is skyrocketing in real terms.
The scientific community has repeatedly warned that the situation is only getting worse and will continue to do so for decades to come.
When do we wise up and apply the same lessons we’ve used successfully elsewhere to limit the destruction to private property and public infrastructure? We no longer build in floodplains because doing so is a poor use of resources. Instead, communities have turned floodplains back to nature, providing habitat for wildlife while reducing the risks posed by historically normal levels of flooding.
We could do the same thing in hurricane-prone regions of the coast. We know that hurricanes will continue to intensify each year and that rising sea levels will only exacerbate the damage when hurricanes strike.
It’s important that the federal government provide as much money as it takes to help address the immediate needs of victims, but if federal taxpayers are going to foot the bill to rebuild roads, bridges, beaches, and other public infrastructure destroyed by these events, we need to be asking if we aren’t simply throwing good money after bad.
We recognize that a house on or near the seashore is a dream for many. But, in most cases, it’s a realized dream only for the wealthy. The question is, why should taxpayers have to shell out out billions to make it possible for wealthy individuals to continue to enjoy their waterfront view or their exclusive island enclaves?
It isn’t just Florida. This is a conversation we need to be having in coastal communities all across the country. If we’re going to be planning for a future even more impacted by climate change than we see today, we need to question whether it makes sense to continue to allow development right up to the water, where homes and businesses are far more vulnerable to storm surges and the worst of the hurricane winds. Returning the most vulnerable of these areas back to natural habitat will save taxpayers the expense of rebuilding infrastructure each time a hurricane crashes ashore.
The federal government needs to reconsider policies that have encouraged coastline development and added to the price tag each time a hurricane strikes. For one, the government provides subsidized flood insurance for coastal residents. There’s a reason that flood insurance from the private sector is prohibitively expensive or unavailable in such areas— the risk and cost of eventual payouts is simply too high. So why should taxpayers have to subsidize insurance costs so the wealthy can maintain their waterfront vacation homes? If the cost of private insurance makes building on the water too costly, everyone should take the hint and rebuild further inland where the risks of catastrophic damage are lower.
It’s time, as well, to update coastal flood maps, many of which are years out of date and don’t reflect the impact of the current, much less future, rise in sea levels. Once adjusted, it’s almost certain that the number of homes and businesses considered flood-prone will rise considerably and that should guide future development decisions.
The federal government should also stop paying millions of dollars to pump or haul sand to restore beaches. With rising sea levels and intensifying storms, it’s another futile subsidy that has to stop.
We understand the desire of politicians to throw money at disasters, fearing criticism if they don’t. But we need to separate the need for immediate relief, which is vital, from the longer-term decision-making about infrastructure and policies that can help reduce the cost of such disasters in the future.
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