State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction is a National Security Issue

CBP responds to Hurricane Harvey
A Border Patrol agent searches a destroyed mobile home for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Harvey near Rockport, Texas. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

One of the wonderful stories in the wake of the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey has been the heroic and selfless response of Texans and of many Americans to those in dire need. It is a story about the strength of the American community, despite the dysfunction of our national political institutions. It is that community that we all count on to ensure that the political leaders and hacks that run our institutions eventually do the right thing. I am sure that the $150 billion or so of aid that will be needed after Harvey will come. For one thing, the accusations of “pork barrel” politics leveled at Sandy aid by the Texas representatives will be missing from this political dialogue. Hopefully it won’t take 100 days to pass the legislation needed for the latest Band-Aid.

The problem is that our national political process cannot handle grown-up issues in a realistic manner. We can’t address immigration or infrastructure, so it’s no surprise that we can’t deal with disasters. The Harvey aid will be deficit-funded, just as Sandy and Katrina were. At some point the anti-tax zealots in Congress will need to cut the posturing and realize that this giant new problem needs a new and sizable revenue stream. We need to raise taxes to fund disaster relief. Do you hear me Senators Cruz and Schumer?

This is a theme I have returned to many times since Hurricane Sandy. According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information: “The U.S. has sustained 212 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including CPI adjustment to 2017). The total cost of these 212 events exceeds $1.2 trillion.” The pace of disasters is increasing and has doubled in recent years. As NOAA reported, before Harvey:

“In 2017 (as of July 7), there have been 9 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included 2 flooding events, 1 freeze event, and 6 severe storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 57 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted. The 1980–2016 annual average is 5.5 events (CPI-adjusted); the annual average for the most recent 5 years (2012–2016) is 10.6 events (CPI-adjusted). During the first half of 2017 (January-June), the U.S. experienced a rapid succession of disaster events, which follows the near-record number of billion-dollar disasters that impacted the U.S. in 2016.”

The cost of storms is not simply due to the intensity and frequency of storms but to the cost of replacing the infrastructure and household conveniences of modern life. Those piles of possessions we see outside of people’s homes in Texas include ruined appliances, furniture, and memories. Still to come will be the expense of ripping out the drywall to prevent mold and redoing the wiring for electricity, cable TV and the internet. All of this costs money. Let me personalize this a bit. My summer bungalow in Long Beach, New York (1,000 square feet on a 40 by 60 plot of land) was hard hit by Sandy. We took in five feet of water, our refrigerator floated on its side and the entire first floor was ruined. The contractor stripped the drywall and before replacing it I saw the original walls of the house—solid wood planks that dried out easily. One of my neighbors told me his father’s story about Long Beach after the 1938 Hurricane nicknamed the Long Island Express. Lots of flooding, but the water went into the homes, they opened the doors and the water flowed out.  The people who owned my home back then had little wiring, an outhouse, and nothing that couldn’t be easily dried out with a lot of fresh air.

In my case, it took 100 days and $80,000 to repair my home. Fortunately, I had flood insurance and eventually FEMA paid my private insurer the money that had been promised when Congress finally passed Sandy aid. I am fortunate because my wife and I had the savings to front the money needed for our repairs. But many of my neighbors had to wait until insurance paid before they began repairs. I am also lucky that my house in Long Beach is not my primary residence. My employer, Columbia University, rents me an apartment in Morningside Heights, near campus. Our Manhattan neighborhood, well above sea level, was not affected by Sandy. That is where my father lived after Sandy, until we were able to repair his storm-damaged home. Many of my Long Beach neighbors doubled up with family and friends and were displaced for a year or longer. While Congress debated and Texas legislators indulged their ideology, my neighbors and their children were homeless. That is what the people in Texas are facing today. They are fortunate, since Ted Cruz won’t be leading the opposition to their aid.  Hopefully the funds will quickly get to Texas. Since the money will eventually be appropriated, it is shameful and disgusting that people’s lives could be disrupted for an extra year while the grinding gears of our dysfunctional federal government figure out a way to get money into the hands of displaced families. That’s what happened after Sandy.

We need to focus on making government more effective, efficient and accountable rather than attack its existence.

Today, we live very differently than we did in the mid-twentieth century. There are also more of us. The U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950. In 1950 there were 151 million people living here, today there are about 326 million people. When a storm hits, more households are affected and more property is destroyed. When you add the greater intensity and frequency of extreme weather due to climate change you have a not-so-perfect storm. We continue to treat each mega storm like it’s the last one we will ever see. We know that is not the case.

Americans these days and Texans in particular don’t like or trust the big, bureaucratic federal government. But the only chance our communities have to effectively deal with the expense and impact of these natural disasters is to deal with them as a national problem. No single state has the resources that an effective FEMA can pull together in an emergency. It would make no sense for Americans to pay for 50 FEMAs when in most years they won’t need one. We also need a national recovery insurance program paid into by every American taxpayer. Texas and Louisiana can’t afford Harvey’s $150 billion price tag, but America can. American governments at all levels have learned many lessons from the Katrinas and Sandys that we’ve faced. We are getting better at warning people about storms, prepositioning supplies, setting up shelters, and at first response to save those in harm’s way. We need to focus on making government more effective, efficient and accountable rather than attack its existence.

We know how to make government work better and have increased the effectiveness of first response, but we are terrible at reconstruction. The arguments are getting old: We don’t want to encourage people to rebuild in the wrong places and believe that subsidizing reconstruction does that. We want to treat each rebuild as a rare emergency so we don’t need to confront the need to raise revenues to pay for reconstruction. All of these “emergency aid packages” have been “off budget expenses” with no revenues set aside to pay the costs. We need to get past dysfunction and treat natural and human made disaster response and recovery as a national security issue.

National security is about protecting the safety and way of life of the American people. It is the single most important responsibility of government. Some threats to our security may be open to debate. The impact of Hurricane Harvey is obvious and easy to understand. We need to take the sense of national unity we see in the wake of these tragedies and use it to create a political coalition for a real long-term program of national reconstruction and response insurance. It should be funded as a graduated tax on income and set aside in a trust fund that can only be tapped according to strict rules and for well-defined purposes. In the modern world reconstruction must be seen as a right and not a privilege. This is a new function of government and yes, it requires a new tax to adequately fund it.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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