March 24, 2023

Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Ian have sparked calls for U.S. disaster policy to adapt to climate change.

After an extreme weather event, such as Hurricane Ian that devastated parts of Florida last month, most Americans are choosing to rebuild rather than move to less dangerous areas.

But if climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters, should US policy adapt?

Gavin Smith, a spatial planning professor at the University of North Carolina, worked for several states after major hurricanes, including Katrina in Mississippi (2005) and Matthew in North Carolina (2016).

In his view, current reconstruction standards are no match for the challenges posed by climate change, but real ‘political will’ is needed to correct them.

Smith’s responses to AFP have been lightly edited and summarized for clarity.

Current reconstruction rules

Q: What are the rules for post-hurricane reconstruction and are they adapted to climate change?

A: Communities must comply with local codes and standards in place in their jurisdiction before the storm hit.

In the US, we have the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which has historically been subsidized by the federal government.

To participate in the program, a community must adopt certain standards for flood risk reduction. They include both building codes and land use plans.

If a house is damaged more than 50 percent of its value in the storm, it must be rebuilt to the most current code and standards.

Our standard for flooding is rebuilding largely back to the “100-year flood,” more accurately called the one percent annual probability of a flood. But in an era of climate change, that “100-year” flood is becoming more common.

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Most risk mitigation codes and standards often reflect a past climate.

For example, we spent $14 billion rebuilding the levee system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That dike system has been rebuilt to the ‘100 years flood’.

So you could say that in the era of climate change, this dyke system is already obsolete.

Political will

Q: What do you expect from government officials?

A: Disasters can provide opportunities to rebuild communities more safely.

What I’m suggesting is that if we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding these communities, we need to require communities to adopt higher codes and standards.

But that requires the political will of both members of Congress and local elected officials.

These are really hard trillion dollar questions.

You’ll also have builders and the private sector saying, “We need to limit those kinds of rules because we need to rebuild quickly.”

It takes a lot of political will for a mayor or governor to say, “No, we have to do what’s right in the long run.:

Unfortunately, people are not chosen by saying, “I’m going to demand higher standards.”

That’s not a winning slogan. It takes political will to say enough is enough, we have 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 incorporate fairness into the processes that have been adopted to develop those standards.

If we let them have higher standards, can the shrimpers and scrapers who live in a very modest house on the water afford it?

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Rules for resilience

Q: What exactly would these better 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 raising structures, stricter wind performance standards such as better roof shingles, hardening our infrastructure – communication systems, bridges, roads, dikes… We can also do this by protecting natural systems such as dunes and wetlands.

The “true” is what we would often call spatial planning.

Should we locate a hospital or school in an area subject to storm surge? Probably not.

A community may choose to say we are not going to build a house within 200 meters of the beach.

Or apply a gradual divestment strategy in extremely high-risk areas (managed retreat). It is very difficult to do politics, but it is done on a small scale.

Resilience is actually about a series of protective measures or choices. It’s not just one. A dike, if that is your only protection and it fails, to me that is not resilience.

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© 2022 AFP

Quote: U.S. hurricane reconstruction rules to adapt to ‘climate change era’: expert (2022, Oct. 9) retrieved Oct. 9, 2022 from era-climate-expert .html

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