US hurricane reconstruction rules must adapt to ‘age of climate change’: expert
Washington (AFP) – After an extreme weather event, like Hurricane Ian that devastated parts of Florida last month, most Americans choose to rebuild rather than move to less dangerous areas.
But as climate change increases the frequency and scale of natural disasters, should US policy adapt?
Gavin Smith, a professor of environmental planning at the University of North Carolina, has worked for several states in the aftermath of major hurricanes, including Katrina in Mississippi (2005) and Matthew in North Carolina (2016).
According to him, the current standards of reconstruction are not up to the challenges posed by climate change, but correcting them will require real “political will”.
Smith’s responses to AFP have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Current reconstruction rules
Q: What are the rules for rebuilding after a hurricane and are they suitable for climate change?
A: Communities should comply with local codes and standards in place in their jurisdiction before the storm hits.
In the United States, we have the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which has always been subsidized by the federal government.
For a community to join the program, it must adopt certain flood risk reduction standards. They understand building codes as well as floor plans.
Then, if a house is damaged in the storm by more than 50% of its value, it must be rebuilt to the latest code and standards.
Our standard for flooding is largely based on the “Centennial Flood”, more accurately referred to as the annual one percent flood event. But in a time of climate change, this “centennial” flood is happening more and more often.
Most harm reduction codes and standards often reflect a climate of the past.
For example, we spent $14 billion to rebuild the levee system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This dyke system was built at the time of the “Centennial Flood”.
So you could argue that in the age of climate change, this dike system is already obsolete.
Q: What do you expect from government officials?
A: Disasters can present opportunities to rebuild safer communities.
What I’m saying is that if we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding these communities, we need to demand that the communities adopt higher codes and standards.
But this requires political will from both members of Congress and local elected officials.
These are really tough trillion-dollar questions.
You will also have builders and the private sector saying, “We should limit this kind of regulation, because we have to rebuild quickly.
It takes a lot of political will for a mayor or a governor to say, “No, we have to do what’s right in the long run.” :
Unfortunately, people don’t get elected by saying, “I’m going to demand higher standards.
This is not a winning slogan. It takes political will to say, enough is enough, we need to adopt higher standards, it will take time, it will cost more and people may have to pay more to do it.
That said, we also need to ensure that we include equity in the processes adopted to develop these standards.
The shrimpers and the crabbers who live in a very modest house on the water, if they are made to adopt higher standards, can they afford it?
– Rules of resilience –
Q: In concrete terms, what would these best standards be?
A: A very simple way to think about it is “where” and “how” you build in relation to natural hazards, including those exacerbated by climate change.
The “how” includes lifting structures, stricter wind resistance standards like better roof shingles, hardening of our infrastructure – communication systems, bridges, roads, levees… We can do that too protecting natural systems such as dunes and wetlands.
The “where” is what we would often call land use planning.
Should we set up a hospital or a school in an area prone to storm surges? Probably not.
A community can choose to say, we’re not going to build a house within 200 meters of the beach.
Either adopt a strategy of gradual disinvestment in extremely risky areas (managed retirement). It is very difficult to do politically, but it is done on a small scale.
Resilience is actually a series of protective measures or choices. It’s not just one. A dyke, if it’s your only protection and it fails, to me that’s not resilience.
© 2022 AFP