Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Short Memories

A recent article in the New York Times begins with a sobering observation of fact: "In many coastal states, flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study found, suggesting that the risks of climate change have yet to fundamentally change people’s behavior."  The article continues, saying:

"There are many reasons construction persists despite the danger. In some cases it’s urban sprawl, in others it’s a desire among government officials for property-tax revenues. But whatever the reason, this kind of building activity will 'come back and bite,' said Benjamin Strauss, president and chief scientist of Climate Central, which produces and publishes research on the effects of global warming.

The article describes the two-fold problems of such irrational decisions. The first is financial. Flood risks and, thereby, flood insurance rates (and rebuilding costs) will continue to increase over the years for residents in these flood-prone areas.  The second is, for me, the most obvious: Safety. When the floods come, families will be put in danger, as will those who come to rescue them (if they come at all).  So why isn't more being done to prohibit (or at least inhibit) such development?

For many communities, it's a lack of political will to address the problem. Where homes are destroyed (as with Hurricane Sandy), local governments are reluctant to prohibit redevelopment, citing the negative financial impact of lost property tax revenue. While coastal properties continue to be so highly valued, the opportunity cost of a decision to create safer, less vulnerable coastal open space is just too high.

Memories are short. The article describes areas in the south affected by Hurricane Katrina where the desire for coastal living outshines the lingering danger of a potential future storm.  So houses continue to be built and eager homebuyers pay higher and higher flood premiums.

The City of Nashville has an answer.  An NPR piece a couple of years ago describes the government's plan to buy people out of their homes and eliminate the risk in flood-prone areas permanently.  The report continues:

"Since 2010, Nashville has bought 261 homes and hopes to acquire 90 more. They're mostly houses built before the 1970s, when the city raised its standards for how high a new structure had to be above the floodplain.  It's not as expensive for cities as it seems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays 75 percent of the cost of buyout, figuring that otherwise it could be stuck helping to fund flood insurance for a property, or paying to help rebuild it every few years. Buyouts have become a priority for FEMA as climate change had led to more intense rainfall events and flooding.

"'We don't look at the 2010 flood as a once-in-a-lifetime event,' says Roger Lindsey, who oversees flood mitigation for Nashville.  He says the focus of the buyout program is 'to take houses that are repetitive loss houses, to offer a homeowner fair market value for the house, and we demolish that home and return the land to a more natural state.'  The land then becomes space for a community garden, a greenway, or park. But that is up to neighborhoods to organize and could take time" 

Even leaders in Nashville admit it's not always an easy sell.  Homeowners are reluctant to leave.  But as the frequency and severity of flood events continues to grow, more are handing over their keys and giving in to the changing climate.

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