by John Rubino
One of the big recent changes in American life is the ongoing mass-migration from the middle of the country to the coasts, especially in the Southeast and Gulf States. South Florida and the Carolinas, along with Houston and surrounding Texas counties, have gained millions of new residents seeking to trade snow and monotony for sun and water. Coastal state governments have by-and-large encouraged this immigration and the resulting construction, paving, and deforestation, because new residents pay taxes and developers contribute to political campaigns.
This is turning out to be a huge, perhaps insanely expensive mistake, similar in a lot of ways to out-of-control public pensions: A short-term benefit that produces long-term costs – i.e., an unfunded liability – which accumulates more-or-less secretly until something happens to turn an accounting issue into a cash flow nightmare.
Consider Houston. Over the past few decades hundreds of thousands of people have moved in, and developers have accommodated them by paving over much of the land that used to absorb floodwaters during storms. When hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the city found itself underwater for days, with damages totaling $125 billion. Much of this was covered by tax payers via federal flood insurance.
Now fast forward to today’s North and South Carolina, also very popular destinations for Americans from colder climes, and the scene of rapid construction of homes, hotels and stores within a few miles of the ocean. In the following article, the New York Times lays out the downside of this kind of short-sighted public policy.
Twenty-nine years ago this month, Hurricane Hugo barreled ashore just north of Charleston, S.C., a category 4 storm with maximum winds estimated at 140 miles an hour and the highest storm tide ever recorded on the East Coast.
Here is where people lived in the region in 1990. Hugo was the nation’s costliest hurricane ever at the time, with damages of about $7 billion.
Over the next three decades, an estimated 610,000 homes were added within 50 miles of the coastline, according to my research.
Most will be affected by Hurricane Florence, the monster storm that is advancing on the coast, with landfall expected Friday morning.
We often hear that climate change is influencing the frequency and strength of tropical storms, heat waves and wildfires, and this is certainly true, though it is too early to say what influence the warming temperatures may be having on Hurricane Florence. That answer must await a post-mortem by climate scientists. But it is also true that rapid coastal development is amplifying the impact of weather and climate events like Hurricane Hugo and those expected with Hurricane Florence over the next few days.
In fact, according to research by me and colleagues, the root cause of the country’s escalating number of weather- and climate-related disasters is not necessarily a rise in the frequency or intensity of these events but the increasing exposure and vulnerability of populations that lie in their path.
That may seem obvious, though perhaps not for the people who have moved to places that are likely to end up disaster areas someday. That fact has either escaped their notice or seems to be of little consequence to them.
This process of population and development growth that influences disaster frequency and magnitude is known as “expanding the bull’s-eye effect.” It isn’t just the population increase that is important in raising the disaster potential but also how the population and built environment are distributed across a landscape. As the targets — people, homes and businesses — become more numerous and spread, so does the likelihood that it will be hit by a tornado or hurricane or wildfire. And that expanding pattern determines the severity of the disaster.
Since 1940, development within 50 miles of the Carolina coastline has increased an estimated 2,180 percent, or by 1.3 million homes. And as I mentioned, nearly half of this development has taken place since Hurricane Hugo, and many of these homes were added in high-risk areas like floodplains.
There seems to be something of a “disaster amnesia” going on with respect to our land development practices after a calamity.
More than a decade ago, 10 leading climate experts felt compelled to issue a statement saying the debate then about whether global warming was intensifying hurricanes was a distraction from “the main hurricane problem facing the United States.” The problem, they said, was the continued “lemming-like march to the sea” in the form of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places. “These demographic trends,” they said, “are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters.”
We know much more about how the warming climate is influencing tropical storms. And in many places along the nation’s coastlines, the lemmings are still marching toward the sea.
Nearly 30 percent of the American population lives along a coast, and an even larger percentage resides in flood-prone regions. The Census Bureau recently reported that the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions have continued to grow despite costly and damaging hurricanes, with their combined populations rising to 59.6 million people in 2016 from 51.9 million in 2000.
It is not a matter of whether a disaster will strike, but when for individuals living in many of these regions.
And when disaster knocks at the door, the bill is left to taxpayers who subsidize the National Flood Insurance Program. That money is often used to rebuild homes in the same high-risk locations. Unfortunately, given current insurance programs, rates that don’t reflect the true risk of insured entities in hazard-prone regions and the lack of incentives to persuade people not to live in these areas, the system we have is unsustainable.
We need to be smarter about where we are developing and how we’re doing it, building in resilience in any new construction in areas prone to weather and climate extremes. People who choose to live in high-risk areas should bear the cost when disaster strikes. Of course, we should be helping people hit by storms like Hurricane Florence. But I’d rather see those dollars directed to hazard mitigation, and making existing and future development better able to withstand a disaster before one hits.
Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean we should. After all, as the saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Among the many crucial quotes from the above article: “In fact, according to research by me and colleagues, the root cause of the country’s escalating number of weather- and climate-related disasters is not necessarily a rise in the frequency or intensity of these events but the increasing exposure and vulnerability of populations that lie in their path.”
In other words, you don’t need climate change to make the policy of encouraging people to move to hurricane alley a bad idea. There have always been – and always will be — monster storms, so a continuation of historically normal weather guarantees the occasional Cat-5 direct hit on the Eastern Seaboard. The more people we put there, the higher the cost of cleaning up afterward.
And since we haven’t had a direct hit in quite a while, all those extra people and buildings that have been added recently will raise the cost beyond anything seen in the past. In this sense, Hurricane Florence is a taste of things to come, but just a taste. The main course is the inevitable “big one” that hits Miami one of these days, after which we’ll finally be able calculate this latest unfunded liability.