The first half of 2011 appears to be one for the record books in terms of financial losses due to catastrophes, including $23.6 billion in damages from thunderstorms alone, according to new data from the Insurance Information Institute.
Yet this isn’t just a one-year extreme; it is part of a longer-term trend. Federal funding spent on flood damages has increased to an annual average of more than $6 billion in the 2000s, which is a 4-fold increase over what expenditures were in the early 1900s.
It’s important to note that development and population growth are actually causing most of the increased pay out. But climate change is contributing to stronger and more frequent storms, according to Munich Re, a major reinsurance company.
The Munich Re findings indicate that there are and will be more days per year in which big thunderstorm systems can develop. And the overall science, in general, is strongly showing that carbon pollution is becoming more intense and contributing to extreme weather events such as dangerously intense rainstorms, snowstorms, droughts, flooding, and heat waves in many places.
Further, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is set to release a study that concludes that there will be a 40 percent to 45 percent increase over the next century in areas in the U.S. susceptible to flooding due to sea-level rise, increasingly severe coastal storms, and increasingly intense rainstorms. Some of the increase will be driven by increased development, but 70 percent of the increase will be due to climate change.
Certainly, it is wise to heed the results of these studies and adjust the ways in which coasts and floodplains are managed. Doing so will save taxpayers money and save property and lives. Yet, the big question is exactly how do we do that?
“Hard” solutions – such as seawalls to protect coastal cities from storms and sea-level rise and levees to protect riverside communities from flooding – are default strategies in many cases. Indeed, history shows that we have poured billions of dollars into these kinds of fixes. History also shows that, increasingly, these structures fail or are insufficient to protect against the threat. We only have to look to the spring flooding along the Mississippi and other major rivers to find evidence of this. Yet recent studies show that one of the most potentially useful and cost-effective solutions to protect people from the increasing hazards will be to preserve, enhance, and restore the natural systems that deliver critical protection from the elements.
For The Nature Conservancy, we think that protection of natural systems such as floodplains and coastal wetlands should be embraced as part of the solution for preparing and protecting people. Floodplains and coastal wetlands are designed to absorb floodwaters and nutrients, while sustaining a diversity of fish and wildlife. If we don’t fully consider all the ways we benefit from the preservation of these resources – not least the flood reduction and prevention they provide – they might be paved over and potentially vastly increase our risks and long-term costs. These natural systems provide low-maintenance “green” infrastructure that does so many productive jobs for us, including absorbing sea-level rise and associated storm surges, coastal and inland flooding, and slowing erosion.
The Nature Conservancy is increasing our effort in places vulnerable to flooding by purchasing property and restoring river and coastal systems to allow them to function more naturally, which means handling flooding more effectively. We are also stepping up our efforts to work to influence federal policy to facilitate agencies like the Army Corps and FEMA to provide more incentive for these natural solutions to flood management. Such actions, we believe, will be cost effective and will promote better water quality and supply, improved fisheries, protection and restoration of coastal and river systems, and protection of wildlife habitat.
We would love to hear from you about what’s happening in your community. Are your leaders using “hard solutions” like seawalls and dams to make repairs after extreme weather? Are they restoring the natural lands and waters in creative ways that do minimal damage to your area? Do they want to takes these actions but are running into obstacles due to existing federal or state policies or programs? What do you think are the solutions in your area?
Sarah Murdock is senior climate policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy
Photo by Lance Cheung of USDA (While conducting a boat tour of the flood waters of Lauderdale County, Tennessee in May 2011, County Mayor Rod Schuh (long sleeve blue shirt) checks in on a family that he learns doesn’t have flood insurance and intends to make repairs out of their own pockets.)
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