After the storms have passed: Rebuilding with climate change in mind

By Alice C. Hill | September 21, 2017

Wind power Wind power

In 1953, the North Sea Flood in the Netherlands killed over 1,800 people, damaged tens of thousands of buildings, swept away livestock, and contaminated fertile lands, rendering them unusable for many years. The Dutch refer to these floods as the waternoodramp, or “water emergency disaster,” and on February 1 of each year, they still commemorate those who died then. After the 1953 floods, the Dutch resolved to protect themselves from similar devastation in the future and urgently began work on determining how to protect their country from other such flood disasters. Sixty years later, the Netherlands has in place some of the most sophisticated flood protection in the world, built to withstand flooding so extreme and rare that it occurs only once every 10,000 years. By way of comparison, here in the United States, the typical flood insurance rate uses a base flood standard of “one hundred-year flood. In other words, the Dutch plan for far worse, more devastating storms than we do.

It may be time for Americans to rethink our assumptions.

We are already seeing more intense storms occurring; with the continuing rise in temperatures from changes in our climate, larger, more ferocious storms may become the new normal. We cannot afford to assume that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—and now, Maria and Jose—were flukes.

Yet in the United States, our building codes, our flood insurance program, and the disbursement of our federal monies are still based upon old, out-of-date assumptions about storm intensity, levels of precipitation, and sea level rise. These factors mean that as we contemplate rebuilding our nation, we now sit at a cross-roads when it comes to our investment in preparedness. Is it enough to simply put back in place what was there before a hurricane? Or should we do as the Dutch have done—and make the necessary investments now to protect our nation in the future? We need to ask ourselves how we can build better so that fewer people die or are injured, and so that buildings and infrastructure, the necessary underpinning of our economy, are resilient to these types of disasters. The stakes could not be higher as to which path we choose. Our national security and our economic strength depend on it. We need to accept that changes in our climate are here and plan with those factors in mind.

We need to talk. And we need committed political leadership. In recent weeks, the United States has suffered its own catastrophic water emergency disasters in the form of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. These disasters should similarly cause the United States to protect against future flooding, but chances are they won’t.

Last month, President Trump received the annual hurricane briefing from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The predictions for this year’s hurricane season were particularly worrisome. The forecast projected a high level of intense storm activity. After the briefing, President Trump tweeted, “Preparedness is an investment in our future,” and yet just 10 days before Harvey made landfall, President Trump killed an order signed by President Obama designed to protect structures built with federal taxpayer dollars from future flooding

Since then, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have left paths of death and destruction across the Caribbean, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the hurricane season is not yet over. The nation will undoubtedly use federal tax dollars to help communities in those locales to rebuild. If past experience with Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy serve as a guide, the bailout amounts could easily climb to tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars. Extreme weather has already cost the United States enormous sums: Since 1980, costs for extreme weather events in the United States have exceeded $1.2 trillion. With these latest storms, that total will continue to balloon.

Of course, to accommodate future risk, we need to talk about climate change. This could be challenging. In the opinion of the current administrator of FEMA the term “climate change” has become so politicized that it prevents having a real discussion. Under the Trump administration, employees at the United States Department of Agriculture are encouraged to use alternative terms like “extreme weather.” A Trump appointee in the EPA’s public affairs office has informed staff that he is watching for “the double C-word and has told grant officers to eliminate references to it in grant solicitations.

But whatever words the Trump administration or we as a nation choose to reference the impacts from increasing global temperatures, the country needs to plan for them.

Almost a year before Harvey first made landfall in Texas, the National Intelligence Council (NIC)—the think tank for the intelligence community—issued an eye-opening report, Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change. The NIC warned that the accelerating effects of climate change—more intense storms, increased sea level rise, more frequent droughts, higher temperatures, more frequent heat waves, and extreme precipitation —are “almost certain to have significant direct and indirect social, economic, political and security implications during the next 20 years.” Furthermore, the report noted that when several extreme weather events occur within a small region or a short timeframe—just as Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose have—they “compound their impact while undercutting efforts by people and governments to cope.” The NIC also warned that a “lack of preparedness” for extreme weather events—events that vary from historical patterns—“may prove a primary cause of disruption.”

Despite the significant risks posed by climate change, the United States is not prepared. Our plans for military construction and infrastructure do not yet fully account for the increased risks from storms and flooding. With a few notable exceptions such as New York City, when communities build their physical infrastructure—buildings, energy and communication facilities, urban water systems, transportation networks, and industrial facilities—they build it to withstand the risks of the past. Virtually none of our model building codes incorporate future risk from climate change. No requirement currently exists to account for future risk in all federally funded infrastructure. This means that when the nation spends federal taxpayer dollars to repair washed-out bridges or roads, they may be rebuilt just as they were without the increased capacity needed to withstand future climate risks. Most of the nation’s flood maps do not reflect the future increased risk of flooding from sea level rise or extreme precipitation. To remain resilient in the face of climate change, the nation has a lot of preparedness work to do.

A good place to start is to ensure that our built environment—in particular structures designed to last 20 or more years—is resilient to future risks.

Why build with future climate in mind? We know that stronger building standards protect our investment in them. Hurricane Andrew in 1994 packed devastatingly high winds when it hit Florida as a Category 5 hurricane. Those winds are blamed for the destruction of over 25,000 homes and damage of another 100,000. Consequently Florida, like the Dutch, resolved to avoid similar catastrophes in the future. It created a statewide, mandatory building code to account for increasingly destructive hurricanes in 2002. When Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne walloped the state in the 2004 hurricane season, newer homes built under the tougher code sustained much less damage than houses built previously under the old code. (Ironically, just this year—before Irma—Florida decided to walk back from its commitment to build to the highest standard. It will no longer automatically adopt the latest updates to model building codes.)

But what about designing buildings to withstand extremes we have not yet experienced?

In 2014, the federal government released the Third National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by Congress. Developed under the direction of federal agencies, and written by more than 300 experts including scientists and government leaders, the report concluded: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” It described on a regional basis the climate change impacts that we are already experiencing and that we are predicted to experience. That report makes clear that the nation can expect record-breaking events, including more severe hurricanes and extreme precipitation events, as a result of climate change.

Unfortunately, 2017 has delivered on climate change’s promise of record-breaking events. As I write this in mid-September, the nation has watched in horror as record floods washed over Texas and Florida. Elsewhere, wildfires in nine states have scorched an area bigger than the size of Maryland. Montana continues to suffer a punishing extreme drought, experiencing the hottest and driest period on record in the state. Los Angeles has battled the biggest wildfire in its history. Normally cool and foggy San Francisco hit a record all-time high of 106 degrees, causing the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to slow trains for fear that rails would buckle in the intense heat. As temperatures climbed to close to 120 degrees, American Airlines cancelled nearly 50 flights in Phoenix: It was too hot to fly. After five years of record-setting drought, precipitation has fallen at more than double the average rate in California. All that rain has stressed the 60-year-old Oroville Dam leading to the evacuation of 200,000 people. And in January, NOAA and NASA confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year ever in human history, making it the third record-breaking year in a row.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers—the same group that gave the United States a grade of D+ for the state of its infrastructure’s condition and performance—we need a “new paradigm for engineering practice” to address the future risk posed by climate change. Using only historical events to inform design choices leaves structures vulnerable to unacceptable risks of failures in functionality, durability, and safety. It seems obvious that to ensure our infrastructure is resilient over its service life—which may easily be 50 to 100 years or more—we need to assess what future risks the structures may reasonably be expected to encounter.

Remarkably, that is not what we currently do.

Far from it.

Pay one dollar more now to save four dollars in the future. The brand-new San Francisco Bay Bridge gives us a hint of what happens when we fail to account for a known future risk in the design stage. The 1989 San Francisco-Oakland earthquake destroyed portions of the Bay Bridge. Nearly 25 years and over $6 billion later, the beautiful new bridge opened in 2013. The design did not plan for future sea level rise. Now just four years later, the bridge needs $17 million in flood mitigation to accommodate the sea level rise that has since occurred.

Our building systems, furthermore, may struggle to accommodate extreme heat. In June of this year, as a result of record high temperatures, Stanford University had to shut down the “comfort cooling” to offices, classrooms, and libraries to preserve cooling capacity for research and medical facilities. In September, the university not only had to reduce comfort cooling, it also had to prepare for possible disruptions to teaching, research, and commercial operations.

Can our drainage systems, buildings, and streets withstand the extreme precipitation events—what some call “rain bombs”—that we experience ever more frequently? Parts of the Washington, DC water system date back to the Civil War. The construction materials include everything from brick to vitrified clay, from cast iron to concrete. As we replace that infrastructure over time, we need to plan for future risk. A study by the state of Massachusetts showed that although upgrading culverts costs more up-front, the long-term costs were 38 percent less than repairing and maintaining existing culverts over a 30-year period.

When we get to the business of rebuilding from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose, we need to make sure that what we put back can withstand the storms and rain events predicted for the future, as well as those we have experienced in the past. That means that whatever we build back must account for future risks of sea level rise, more extreme precipitation events, and more intense storms that climate change projections tell us lay in our not-so-distant future. What has guided design choices yesterday can no longer safely guide us into tomorrow. The chief economist at Freddie Mac observed that home borrowers may find their properties underwater—both figuratively and literally—before they even have a chance to pay off that 30-year mortgage note. The Trump administration should also reinstate President Obama’s requirement that structures built with federal money be elevated to avoid future flooding. For every dollar the nation spends on mitigating risk, it saves at least four dollars on recovery.

Tackling these issues will take leadership and foresight to build for a more resilient tomorrow. Some say that we cannot afford to build resiliently. If we cannot afford to reinforce our homes against known risks then what nation can? And if we are unwilling to make that investment, who will pay for the far more expensive recovery?

Put another way, can we really continue to assume Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—and now Maria and Jose—were flukes? Was Harvey truly a one-in-1,000-year storm as the Washington Post reported or a one-in-500-year event as President Trump claimed? No matter which claim is true, climate change will turn these into 900- or 400-year storms as “fluke” weather events worsen until this becomes routine. Can we safely assume that Houston, which has suffered three one-in-500-year storms in the last year, will not flood again in the near future? Or do we take into account the risks from climate change projected by the nation’s scientists and build back better to be prepared? Resolving this issue is not a political question or a question of “belief” in climate science. It is an issue of risk mitigation and reduction, and which path leads to greater future prosperity and security.

As the Dutch have changed the course of their history, so can we as Americans. If the nation fails to incorporate the risks of climate change into its preparedness efforts, any investment in the future may be washed away with the next storm.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments