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Unprepared for the next deadly deluge

The scene on Terry Street in Sayville a

The scene on Terry Street in Sayville a day after superstorm Sandy devastated Long Island in 2012. Credit: NEWSDAY / Thomas A. Ferrara

Three of the five most expensive hurricanes in our nation’s history occurred last year. Harvey, Maria and Irma did $265 billion in combined property damage. Add in smaller natural disasters and the total cost was $310 billion, or about $3,000 per American household. Storms are getting worse. And costs and consequences are increasing dramatically for these reasons:

  • Climate change means rising seas that intensify storm surges and flooding. The chances of extraordinary rain events, like the 30 inches from Hurricane Florence’s recent run through the Carolinas and the 60 inches Harvey dropped on Houston, are greater.
  • The exposure to financial and human losses has grown dramatically as we’ve ignored warnings and built taller, more expensive structures near the shore.
  • The increased paving of vulnerable communities leaves less exposed earth to soak up floodwaters.

And we are, as a nation, as a state, and especially as a region, doing a wretched job of hardening against risk and making sane decisions about how and whether to rebuild.

One shortcoming that grabs headlines is the National Flood Insurance Program, and it is a mess. The NFIP is intended to support itself by selling insurance to property owners priced to cover their risk, but the program is $25 billion in debt, even after Congress forgave $16 billion it owed last year.

The flood maps the NFIP uses are old and inaccurate, which is part of the reason only 5 million properties are covered by policies when it should be at least three times that many. And while Long Islanders complain about being required to buy policies and the cost, their rates are often too low.

Politicians representing coastal states like New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand take the popular view that policyholder costs shouldn’t increase. But who, then, should pay? Homeowners who can’t afford fair rates need help. Communities can’t be abandoned. But over time, or once properties have been damaged, residents must leave areas where weather can be expected to frequently cause destruction no one can afford to fix.

Even if the NFIP did have the fee structure necessary to break even, it would ignore the nation’s much larger problem of paying for the damage not covered by insurance of any kind.

After superstorm Sandy, for instance, the NFIP paid out $9 billion to policyholders. But the federal government spent another $56 billion on relief for residents, communities and municipalities not covered by federal flood insurance. After Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive storm in the nation’s history, the NFIP paid out $16 billion to policyholders. But the federal government also allocated another $114 billion to finance the recovery.

Maps of southern Long Island for 2045, when the ocean is expected to have risen 18 inches, show communities like Lindenhurst, Long Beach and Freeport suffering some flooding with every full moon and being submerged after every significant storm. Yet when federal funds were distributed to rebuild homes on the South Shore after Sandy, many of the ones where the damage cost less than 50 percent of the value of the home to repair were not even elevated when they were rebuilt. They sit exactly as they did in 2012.

Last week, as residents were clearing the wreckage and tallying up the cost of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, the Senate passed a law that would create new pre-disaster mitigation funding. The move, both encouraging in its emphasis and depressing in how much it will leave undone, will help the nation prepare for hurricanes, floods and other disasters. The measure also has provisions to help communities improve building standards, probably the biggest priority of all.

The funding will vary because it will come as a percentage of money spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. In 2017, for instance, it would have added up to about $600 million.

It’s estimated that every $1 spent on mitigation saves $6 in disaster response, so every bit helps. And the change, which also passed the House of Representatives last month and is attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, has strong support from every sector with a stake in preparing communities for flooding. The money will be distributed via grants from FEMA and a per-state formula, and New York and Long Island officials should aggressively seek the money.

But to dedicate such a paltry sum to prevention when such investments pay off so well is foolish. From 2005 to 2014, FEMA spent more than $277 billion to rebuild communities after disasters, but only $600 million on pre-disaster mitigation. That’s a ratio that would make more sense if it were reversed.

Federal law and local building codes should demand that all new construction be built to withstand flooding, or be ineligible for compensation after a disaster. A state commission should ride herd on communities to make sure that happens. Flood insurance should be priced to cover a property’s risk, with some subsidies for low-income residents. And any plan to restore properties damaged by flooding should be examined with a hypercritical eye if public or NFIP money is involved.

Weather risks are getting worse fast. Our response must get better faster.