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The Human and Financial Toll of Hurricanes: Climate Change, Flood Mitigation, and the Effects of Superstorms on Low Income and Working Middle Class Families

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By Dr. Philip M. Dodd-Nufrio, Professor, Metropolitan College of New York

Dr. Philip M. Dodd-Nufrio is professor of public administration at the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY).

​Dr. Philip M. Dodd-Nufrio is professor of public administration at the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY).

​This essay updates a 2019 article by Philip M. Dodd-Nufrio, Roseanne Mirabella, and Bev Cigler in Public Administration Times. The 2019 article resulted from a national panel at the 2019 National American Society for Public Administration conference (ASPA). The panel included: U.S. Representatives Garret Graves (R), District 6, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Stacey Plaskett, (D) U.S. Virgin Islands; Mark S. Roupas, Deputy Chief, Office of Homeland Security, United States Army Corps of Engineers.



According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 219 weather and climate disasters of all types (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/mapping-us-climate-trends). Damage costs per disaster reached or exceeded $1 billion (including Consumer Price Index adjustments through December 2017), with the cumulative costs for the 219 events exceeding $1.5 trillion. Fewer lives are lost to natural hazards in recent years due to better forecasting, warning, and emergency response. There are, however, disproportionate effects on people and groups in terms of their ability to anticipate, cope with, and recover from disaster events, with special needs populations often the most vulnerable.

In Disaster Politics and Policy (2019), Sylves reported that 2017 was a record-breaking year for the U.S. on hurricane damages, with ten hurricanes that collectively inflicted $265 billion in damages. Table 1 showed federal spending as of April 30, 2018, for the five most financially devastating storms since 2005. Federal spending for Maria, Harvey, and Irma will continue for ten more years and may exceed spending for Hurricanes Ike, Sandy, Rita, and Wilma.

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Table 1:  Federal Spending on Hurricanes (2005 – Present)

​Table 1:  Federal Spending on Hurricanes (2005 – Present)

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Climate Change and Its Impact on Disasters

The 2017 NOAA report showed U.S. temperature warming at a rate of at least 2.0 °F per century over the northern third of the U.S. and sea levels rising on the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. Following Hurricane Sandy, New York Harbor saw sea levels rise one foot higher than a century ago, contributing to destruction in large parts of New York City. Identical outcomes affected large parts of the other devastating storms since 2005 (Table 1) and the surrounding coastal cities.

There is a relationship between climate change and extreme events and effects on decision-maker responsibilities for life safety considerations and large infrastructure investments. The apparent changes in rising sea levels and their associated impacts on storm surge suggest some bipartisan progress on working together to seek common ground on addressing climate change.   ​

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Flood Risk Mitigation

Flood risk mitigation consists of actions that reduce risk to people and property from hazards and their effects. Mitigation tools include design and construction applications, such as elevation of homes; land use planning and zoning; and shoreline structural protection. Enacted in 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is the most widely used flood risk mitigation tool. It is intended to encourage individuals living in hazard-prone areas to purchase insurance on the assumption that a government-subsidized program will entice purchases of policies that minimize the need for federal post-disaster assistance. Such policies encourage the use of an array of mitigation tools.

Too few property owners purchase NFIP policies. Between 1972 and 2017, real dollar damages exceeded insurance payouts and placed a massive burden on direct federal assistance and FEMA's budget. Only 40% of Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi and Louisiana had NFIP insurance, and only 15% of the homes impacted in the Houston area were covered by the NFIP when Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017.  There is a pattern of insurance underpayments even for individuals who have NFIP and private insurance and, since Katrina, many NFIP policyholders have had their claims denied. Current challenges facing the NFIP include the difficulties of determining risk and how it is apportioned to the property owner, the state, and the federal government. 

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The Effects of Superstorms on Low Income and Working Middle Class Families

In a Brookings Institute report, Krause and Reeves (2017) concluded that low-income and minority communities are more vulnerable to the risks of natural disasters; they also struggle most to recover. Lower-income Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods or buildings more susceptible to storm shocks.

As a case in point, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, low-income neighborhoods were more affected than wealthier ones, as low-income families were more concentrated in flood-prone parts of Houston. Long (2017) reported that in eight counties most severely affected by Hurricane Harvey, only 17 percent of homeowners held flood insurance policies, which are more commonly held by wealthier households. Even with FEMA assistance, low households affected by storm damage will likely confront the consequences for years to come.

In a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, Platt Boustan, Kahn, Rhode and Yanguas (2017) analyzed a 90-year data set, including all the natural disasters in the United States, from mild to the most severe storms. They estimated how these shocks impact local poverty rates and outmigration at the county level.  Boustan et al. (2017), stated, “During a time of increased concern about income inequality and climate change risk, natural disaster exposure risk could become another cause of rising quality of life inequality between the rich and the poor," concluded the NBER research team.

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Spending on Recovery vs. Mitigation

Instead of expending large amounts of taxpayer dollars on disaster response and recovery, a more cost-efficient approach might be considered since dollars spent on mitigation can significantly reduce recovery costs and provide a better return on investment.  The federal government pays 75% of disaster costs, but only $1 in $10 goes to mitigation. Leverage is gained through strengthened zoning and building codes (state and local responsibilities) and enabling federal mitigation funding. Costly structural projects such as levees and dune replenishment remain a critical national responsibility.

The Disaster Assistance and Recovery Act of 2018, under which 6% of the authorized FEMA disaster relief funds are earmarked for mitigation depending on the severity of disasters for a given year, is promising. Congress annually approves coastal mitigation projects done by the Corps that positively impact coastal communities. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, 150 miles of beaches were added to the Northeast corridor. These other beaches do require financial demands on the federal government to partner with non-federal partners; usually, a mandated 65/35 split (federal/non-federal share).

Each coastal storm risk management project is congressionally authorized. Non-federal sponsors assume operation and maintenance after initial construction, and routine nourishment involves a cost-share agreement. Rigid structures such as seawalls and surge barriers may also be needed, and Congress can authorize supplemental appropriations for them. 

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Conclusion

The costs of extreme weather events increase as climate changes, and the intensity and frequency of heavy precipitation events have increased in most parts of the U.S. since 1901. The northeast has the largest increases in heavy precipitation and local relative sea-level rise. Scientists expect continued changes in riverine, coastal, and combined flooding as the climate continues to change.  

Post-Hurricane Dorian and Tropical Storm Imelda thinking require more severe consideration of mitigation. There is renewed interest in well-managed "retreat" and relocation of some people and communities. Respect for sound science and cooperation across sectors and regions is of concern. Working and middle-class families suffer the most in superstorm disasters further supports the need to ensure that flood insurance is affordable for all.  


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References

Crouch, J. (2017). Mapping U.S. Climate Trends. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/mapping-us-climate-trends

Deaton, J. (2017). Hurricane Harvey Hit Low Income Communities the Hardest. https://thinkprogress.org/hurricane-harvey-hit-low-income-communities-hardest-6d13506b7e60/

Krause E., and Reeves, R.V., (2017) Hurricanes Hit the Poor the Hardest. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/09/18/hurricanes-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/

Long, H. (2017). Where Harvey has hit hardest 80 percent lack flood insurance. Washington Post. 8/27/17

Nufrio, P.M., Mirabella, R., Cigler, B. The Human and Financial Toll of Hurricanes: Where Does the Country Go from Here? Public Administration Times. https://patimes.org/the-human-and-financial-toll-of-hurricanes-where-does-the-country-go-from-here/

Platt Boustan, L., Kahn, M.E., Rhode, P.W., and Yanguas, M.L.  (2017). The Effect of Natural Disaster on Economic Activity in US Counties: A Century of Data.  Working Paper 23410. http://www.nber.org/papers/w23410. National Bureau of Economic Research. May 2017

Sylves, R.  (2019). Disaster Politics and Policy: Emergency Management and Homeland Security. London: Sage Publications. 

The Disaster Assistance and Recovery Act of 2018. https://www.fema.gov/disasters/disaster-recovery-reform-act-2018


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