On Wednesday the White House hosted a Forum on Smart Finance for Disaster Resilience to “highlight innovations in disaster mitigation and resilience finance, including emerging public-private collaborations with banking, insurance, and financial services sectors.” According to NOAA the U.S. has sustained 196 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 196 events exceeds $1.1 trillion. Flooding alone caused for $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013.
Just this week a 1-in-1,000-year flood event caused significant damage and tragic loss of life in the historic town of Ellicott City, Maryland. West Virginia, Texas, Illinois and South Carolina have all experienced significant flood events in the last three years. As the federal government, insurance companies and local recovery programs assist these communities, it’s important to consider tools that can be used to help reduce similar losses in the future. Resilient design standards, changes to insurance policies, and green bonds were all topics of discussion at the White House event.
The idea of resilient recovery has become more common following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when high wind and coastal storm surge devastated the Northeast at a cost of $67 billion. Redefining the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, properly balancing risk for private insurers and encouraging home owners to strengthen their homes (see the FORTIFIED Program) are all good starts.
Key to ensuring that infrastructure is built safe and strong lies with the engineers who design it. However, the engineering profession has for too long relied on historical data for its design parameters, when a paradigm shift is needed to design for future conditions. With more than 50 percent of Americans living in coastal counties, key infrastructure (e.g. ports and energy facilities) and evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to impacts like higher sea levels, storm surges, and flooding. Inland communities face similar problems of riverine flooding, drought and forest fire.
While there’s no one right answer, the White House forum demonstrated it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. With the right policies and building codes in place, combined with emergency planning, people can live and safely and comfortably in their community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers resources to help guide communities in the financing of high performing infrastructure. The days of free unhinged disaster response funds are likely behind us, and requiring communities to build stronger will keep us safer and ultimately save money and lives in the long run.