A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office predicts an alarming $54 billion in hurricane and flood damage over the next few years — much of which can be avoided by spending money upfront to protect and prevent against losses.
The frequency of what are called “billion-dollar storms” appear to be increasing. In 2018, there were 39 “billion-dollar” disasters around the world — 16 of which were in the U.S. Already in the first four months of 2019, the U.S. has endured winter storms Quiana and Ulmer, and each one caused more than a billion dollars in damage to infrastructure and homes.
The new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) focuses on hurricanes, which are the mostly costly natural disasters according to NOAA. Since 1980, tropical cyclones have caused a combined $927.5 billion in damages and are also the most expensive individual storm events in both financial cost and lives lost.
Of the annual losses predicted by the CBO, $34 billion is estimated in damage to homes, plus $12 billion for the public sector and $9 billion for private businesses. The direct cost to taxpayers is estimated at approximately $17 billion per year.
However, the CBO report also underscores several preventive actions that could significantly reduce these costs. By some analyses, mitigation measures (such as flood prevention or watershed protection) could save Americans $6 dollars in losses for every $1 spent in preparation.
Solutions to mitigate hurricane damage
The following suggestions from the report include environmental and policy-level recommendations to reduce loss in infrastructure and lives from tropical storms and hurricanes.
Reduce carbon emissions
Hurricanes, and their rising frequency and intensity, are intricately tied to climate change. Increasing temperatures melt glaciers and cause sea level rise, which leads to higher storm surge levels and more destructive flooding. The rising temperatures have also been linked to increased rainfall. Climate change is a result of greenhouse gas emissions; therefore, reducing emissions would slow and prevent some of the future damage caused by intense storms and extreme flooding.
One primary way to reduce emissions, according to the CBO, is by expanding cap-and-trade programs. These programs incentivize companies to keep emissions below designated thresholds and allow the purchasing of emission credits between companies that pollute less and companies that pollute more. However, the CBO also acknowledges that limiting emissions may negatively impact the economy by increasing the cost of goods and services and reducing jobs. Likewise, the CBO argues that such strategies must be enforced at a global scale, otherwise corporations will relocate to countries that allow unfettered pollution.
Increase funding for flood mapping
The weather is changing, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is struggling to keep up. Rapid urban development in wetlands and flood zones, combined with sea level rise and erosion, are changing the landscape of flood risk. The scale of this need is overwhelming — in 2018, FEMA spent $452 million on flood mapping and data collection, but it was nowhere near enough.
Expand flood insurance coverage
Flood insurance agencies need accurate spatial data and maps in order to adequately provide coverage, charge appropriate rates and adequately inform the public about their specific risks. Most people simply do not buy flood insurance and of those that do, 25 percent drop their plan within the first year. More accurate data and delineated risk zones can help inform residents of their direct risks and incentivize homeowners to implement mitigation measure, such as relocating heating and cooling equipment above of the predicted flood level.
Accurate risk data will also help justify changes for long-standing insurance policy holders who have been “grandfathered” into plans that grossly underestimated their vulnerability before climate science and spatial mapping were widely available. An estimated 20 percent of insurance policy holders are paying rates lower than their appropriate risk level, which is good news for the policy holder up until a storm hits and they are in need of benefits that correspond to the damage they endured.
Encourage local and state governments to share recovery costs
When the president declares a disaster emergency, municipalities receive federal dollars to provide basic needs and support recovery efforts. Though the federal government plans to ramp up funding for preventive measures, such as sea walls, the CBO believes that if local and state governments had to foot more of the bill, they would be more inclined to enforce important mitigation policy. For example, if local and state governments expected to have to pay for damage to infrastructure, they would be more strict about limiting new development in flood zones — something they have more power to control from a local level.
The message is clear — mitigation efforts are worth every penny. The National Weather Service already predicted more severe flooding this hurricane season than previous years. As evidence piles up in favor of mitigation, the only question remaining is ‘where do we start?’