The typical journalism cycle for hurricanes goes like this:
1) Spread fear ahead of wind, rain, storm surges, and shortages of bread, milk, gas and strawberry-frosted Pop Tarts.
2) Report that while the hurricane is devastating the community, neighbors are pulling together and one heartwarming family is sharing their stock of 3,500 Jell-O chocolate pudding cups with pudding-less pals.
3) Report that in the aftermath of the storm, damages are expected to cost $2 gazillion, the National Flood Insurance Program is in debt up to its giblets, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency director is under an I-95 overpass with a sign that says “Need to feed and shelter 3 million people please help God Bless!”
Tuesday, Hurricane Florence bore down on the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, and forecasters said it could be the most powerful hurricane ever to hit that region. They also said it could stall once it hits, as Hurricane Harvey did in Houston last year, dumping unprecedented rain.
There’s no way to tell how many people Florence will displace, injure, or kill. But we can tell that the damage will be painfully expensive, the nation cannot afford to pay, and the nation simply must pay.
According to the National Hurricane Center, three of the five most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history occurred . . . wait . . . do you think I’m going to say “in the past 20 years?” Hah!
Nope. In the past year. Harvey ($125 billion), Maria ($90 billion) and Irma ($50 billion) all came in 2017.
Natural disasters cost the United States $310 billion last year, besting the previous record from 2005 by almost 50 percent. The total interest paid on the national debt in 2017 was only $276 billion.
It looks like this is going to get worse. It looks like climate change/global warming will raise sea levels and increase the frequency of extreme disasters. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it’s not clear that much of the 60 inches of rain Harvey dropped on Houston, for instance, and the buckets Florence could drop on the Carolinas are related to warming.
What is clear is that our nation near the coasts is increasingly paved and populated. Excessive rains cannot soak in and water-adjacent communities are full of expensive but not terribly impregnable buildings. That means hurricanes bring maximum destruction.
And our politicians, particularly in places like Long Island, do everything in their power to maintain and exacerbate the conditions that make such storms so expensive.
The National Flood Insurance Program, by law self-supporting, is $25 billion in debt, after Congress forgave $16 billion of its debt last year. It charges far too little in premiums to many policy holders. And when it’s proposed that premiums be increased enough to cover the risk of living near water, the real estate industry, shoreline residents and politicians who represent them vow to keep premiums very low.
That encourages more building, and rebuilding, in flood-prone areas, often by owners who’ve had total-loss flood claims paid on the same properties five times or more. And most of the taxpayer cost of these storms comes not from bailing out the National Flood Insurance Program’s 5 million policy holders but from federal appropriations used to rebuild the properties of the vast majority of Americans who have no flood insurance at all.
Three hurricanes last year cost this country more than the interest on its national debt. If you want to understand how badly Washington is broken, just watch how Myrtle Beach and Wilmington are rebuilt.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.