Alice C. Hill is in the business of finding better ways to cope with the catastrophic risks posed by climate change—risks so bad, she says, that “most of us avoid talking about them at the dinner table.” A short list includes ocean acidification, out of control wildfires, long-lasting droughts, record-breaking heat waves that kill crops and humans, the spread of tropical diseases to temperate countries such as the United States, and massive, global-warming assisted hurricanes that cause extensive flooding—which she terms “rain bombs.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, her skills have been in great demand.
A former member of the National Security Council and a former Special Assistant to the President, she led the development of a national policy to deal with the effects of climate change on national security—effects that institutions such as the Department of Defense call a “threat multiplier.” Since leaving the White House, Hill has been a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
In this interview, Hill describes the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, its connections to climate change, and how coastal cities could make themselves more resilient to the increased-intensity storms that climate change is likely to produce.
She addresses what coastal cities could do that is relatively cheap and independent of the federal government; and what the federal government could do that climate change-denying politicians could get on board with. Most importantly, Hill describes how to rebuild after the devastating storm in Texas and Louisiana, so that we do not repeat the same mistakes.
The Bulletin’s Dan Drollette caught up with Hill by phone in this interview. (Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
BAS: I’m glad we could schedule this interview. Sounds like you’re really in demand these days, with all those media requests.
HILL: It’s been busy. But I’m thrilled to have a moment where people actually care about things like flood control, building better, and how to be safer. Sometimes you think people consider you a little nutty for talking about how we can mitigate risk. But with Hurricane Harvey, things have changed.
BAS: I guess the reason is Harvey’s sheer scale. It’s shattering records; the National Weather Service tweeted that it had to add new colors to its weather maps to depict the volume of rainfall.
HILL: I hadn’t heard that. But yeah, it’s going to be nothing but superlatives from here on in. It’s going to be record-breaking forever.
And that’s one thing that I don’t think has dawned on people—that our past is no longer a good guide to our future. If you just looked at historic norms, you’re not going to be able to know what to prepare for. And that’s hard for people to get their heads around.
Trump called Harvey’s aftermath a “500-year flood.” But that term is not really true any more, because we’ll be seeing more of these epic storms, and they certainly will return more frequently than that phrase would suggest.
BAS: Are there any connections between Hurricane Harvey and climate change?
HILL: Well, it resembles what we anticipated with climate change. The attribution science has greatly improved just in the last year. I have not yet read an immediate study that says this particular storm is climate-caused. But certainly it is consistent with what we have said we can expect. They’ve got a one-foot sea level rise, which increased the storm surge. And this storm also had the expected extreme precipitation—a “rain bomb”—because so much rain fell at once. And there’s no place for it to go.
And that is all consistent with what we thought would occur with climate change. The storms come more quickly, because warmer water temperatures cause storms to form quickly and be more intense.
BAS: Climatologist Michael Mann wrote that because the Gulf of Mexico is so warm now, and at such great depths, that it helped make the hurricane bigger. In other words, if climate change didn’t cause Harvey, it at least made it many times bigger. If I understand right, the energy contained within the Gulf itself—in the form of heat—provided a huge supply of warm water to rev up the storm, instead of cool Gulf water to slow the hurricane down. I’m paraphrasing here, but is that a good way to loosely describe it?
HILL: And the water surface temperatures were warmer as well. So, yes, that sounds right to me. But I am not a climate scientist, so I would defer to Michael Mann. But in the course of my work at the National Security Council, I did read what the scientists have issued, particularly in the form of the National Climate Assessment. And it says that we’re going to have more intense storms, with greater amounts of precipitation, and higher storm surges. All of this should not be a surprise to us, but it still is.
BAS: But at the same time, there was an article published in Wednesday’s issue of The Guardian headlined “Conservative groups shrug off link between Harvey and climate change.”
HILL: I have seen people say: “Oh, let’s not talk about that right now. Because we’re in the response phase.”
But I think it’s important to talk about, and certainly in my work I encounter many people who say climate change is not happening. But I don’t think their position reflects the evidence… We’ve been keeping records since the 1880s, which indisputably show that the planet is heating up every year. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year we’ve ever experienced. We’re hitting new highs we’ve never hit before. And it’s not just in the United States; a town in Pakistan reached something like 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That beat every record, with the possible exception of Death Valley. And note the name: “Death Valley.”
And we’re seeing these unprecedented flood events—not just Hurricane Harvey, but unprecedented flooding in Asia right now, as well as Sierra Leone earlier this month. These record-breaking events will be our new norm. And, of course, a lot of the resulting flood damage can be laid to development.
BAS: Is development part of the reason for this storm’s effects? Things like the paving-over of rice fields and prairies in Texas to make hundreds of square miles of roads and shopping mall parking lots? They sealed off a lot of land that could have been absorbing water.
HILL: Very much so. Our land-use decisions have affected the ability of water to drain, and if the water can’t drain easily it’s going to sit there and cause increased flooding. So no question, the development choices we’ve made have an impact. Paving over wetlands and reducing our greenscape has increased the risk—as well as the amount—of flooding near urban areas.
BAS: Did poor development decisions also cause Texas to lose other natural features—such as barrier islands—that would have protected its shoreline and lessened the impact of storms?
HILL: Well, Galveston is on a barrier island, and it’s highly developed.
Galveston is interesting in many ways. In 1900, they experienced the worst hurricane the United States ever had, in terms of fatalities. They lost somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. After that event, the town decided that “We can’t let this happen again. We’re going to rebuild higher.” So they put in a 17-foot high seawall that protected them for many, many years. I think it wasn’t until 2008—when Hurricane Ike came through—that they really had significant problems. And they rebuilt their hospital recently to be very resilient to storms and floods.
BAS: How do you make a building or a community more flood-resilient? What specific things should people think about?
HILL: We’ve learned a lot about this. I think Hurricane Sandy was a big wake-up call for the nation. Sandy arrived at night, on October 29, 2012, with a storm surge expected to be a maximum of 12 feet but came in at 14.
So, the first lesson was, we better check how much sea level rise we’ve really had. Because our estimates for maximums are no longer sound.
Then, that 14-foot storm surge blew out an electrical substation in Lower Manhattan, plunging that part of the city into darkness. Consequently, we learned that if your electrical system fails, it causes cascading affects in other life-line sectors, such as transportation and health. The subway trains couldn’t run because they didn’t have electricity.
And we learned that even if you have generators, if they get over-run with water, you can’t use them. So we learned that you need to put the generators up high, rather than in the basement, which is the typical location. And it’s important that the generators’ fuel be high up as well—one hospital had its generators up high but its fuel in the basement, and they couldn’t get to it.
The list goes on and on.
For example, how do you evacuate all the patients in your hospitals, especially when they are located in intensive-care units on high floors in New York City? We had to evacuate 6,000 patients down darkened stairwells, using just flashlights… so, don’t put your ICU patients high up.
Another thing we learned is to have backup systems, and good, reliable power to keep these medical support systems going to keep people safe. At the moment, for example, you may not be able to get dialysis treatments during a catastrophic event.
So, those are some of the lessons, and there are thousands of them. But we do know better now, how to build so that we can withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. So, we try to take these as lessons learned in being resilient. The important thing, though, is to actually implement what we’ve learned. That’s where it’s more hit-or-miss.
BAS: A New York Times article recently described a building in the West 20s that was being retrofitted to deal with rising waters. They were raising the entrance to the building and the foyer so that they were six feet above the sidewalk. And putting all the elevator equipment on the second floor, instead of the basement.
HILL: Yes, there are lots of choices you can make. There certainly is deeper expertise as to how to build resiliently.
The problem is that we don’t have building codes that reflect this new reality yet. They’re working on them, but those codes aren’t widespread. There’s only a few communities that have planned for catastrophic floods. New York has done more in this area than almost all communities, in trying to figure out how to build more resiliently, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Most of our current building codes don’t yet reflect the future risk from climate change. We need more flood-proofing, to prepare for the more severe floods that will be a natural result of climate change. And some areas have no building codes. Some have adopted older building codes, and have not updated them. The frequent argument is, it’s too expensive to change things. Even if you have a great building code, you have to have enforcement of it. So, there are many challenges still on the building front.
BAS: Do you think the current administration is capable of such long-term thinking and planning? I mean, given that Trump’s proposed budget cuts something like $667 million from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. He’s talking about a 16-percent cut to NOAA, which manages the National Weather Service. Slashing funding for the Coast Guard, which does a lot of emergency rescue missions. Cutting $190 million from the Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program…
HILL: I believe this administration could, if it chose to. For example, every year we have a hurricane briefing for the president, sponsored by FEMA, which NOAA participates in. After that hurricane briefing, which happened on August 4, President Trump tweeted: “Preparedness is an investment in our future.” Now, if he believes that, then there are many places in his proposed budget where he should make changes. They should be directed at increasing the budget for preparedness, not decreasing it.
One of the first things he could easily do is make it a condition that any federal dollars spent on rebuilding after Harvey have resiliency in mind.
For example, after Sandy, a Rebuilding Task Force was created. And they made it a rule that any structures rebuilt with federal money would have to be a foot higher than they otherwise would have been. That rebuilding task force then directed that the National Security Council, where I sat, develop a National Flood Management Standard, to make sure that we learned from our past mistakes. I was the person in the Obama White House in charge of making sure that got done. Which I did.
Now as a result of that new review we did, we decided that the new standard should be that everything be built two feet higher. Or, if it was a critical structure, like a hospital, it had to be three feet. And in some cases, not even build hospitals or critical facilities in areas prone to flooding. So, there are many choices the federal government, the President could direct, as to future building when federal dollars are involved.
Did that make sense? Basically, if you want to have federal money, we could say: “Fine, you can take the money, but you’re going to build resiliently.”
It was something that was achieved by consensus, that all the agencies signed off on, and President Obama created as an Executive Order.
But 10 days before Hurricane Harvey hit, President Trump rescinded that order, and his most recent infrastructure order, with no comment, no explanation.
BAS: Let’s go on to a closely related topic: the National Flood Insurance Program. In an OpEd for The Hill titled “The same houses flood every year and we keep paying for them,” you described how a single house outside Baton Rouge that’s worth $56,000 has flooded 40 times, and accumulated almost $430,000 in flood insurance claims—claims which we, the taxpayers, ultimately wind up paying. And the building’s owner continues to build in the same way, in the same low-lying, flood-prone place.
What you suggested was that if we the taxpayer give the building’s owner the money to rebuild, then we should be able to say: “Here’s the money—But put the house on stilts, establish barriers to keep out the water, build resiliently, or move to a different, drier spot.” Is that a good way to sum it up for the general lay person?
HILL: Yes. We should direct how the money is used.
But that will take political will on our part to say: “We cannot afford as a nation to continue to build, leaving people and structures in harm’s way.”
I would note that the National Flood Insurance Program is up for reauthorization at the end of September, and certainly repetitive losses is a big topic of conversation… and Congress needs to deal with that. The program is more than $25 billion in debt right now, due to things like repetitive losses, questions about how much value to put on a structure, and what the rates are. Because right now, for about 20 percent of homes, the rates are so low that they do not accurately reflect the true risks involved.
They’re heavily subsidized rates that would be a lot more in the open market. But we don’t have private insurance offered there, and the federal government ends up being the insurer of last resort. Consequently, the Government Accountability Office—watchdog for the federal government—has said that climate change is a high-risk item, fiscally, for the United States.
BAS: What does this all mean in terms of Harvey?
HILL: With Hurricane Harvey, God knows what it’s gonna be.
It’s kind of crazy, but insurance in Texas is somewhat determined by outdated flood maps, which show you whether you’re at risk for a 100-year flood. So, people see the outdated maps and think “I’m not in the flood zone”—and then something like Harvey happens and they’re uninsured.
So, only 15 percent of homeowners in Harrison County—which includes Houston—carried flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance program. So, we’re gonna discover that millions of people have no insurance for this at all.
BAS: Given what’s happened in Texas, do you think there will be an impetus to revise the program? So that maps are updated, people are not over- or under-covered, and you break the cycle of insuring properties that will inevitably flood again and again?
HILL: Oh, absolutely. I think we need to make it actuarially sound. And at the same time, we have to be very concerned about those in trouble. Many of the people who live in the flood plains were there because they could not afford to live elsewhere, so we have to be sensitive as to how we’re going to help them—perhaps it’s buying out their homes and helping them relocate to higher ground.
But we cannot continue this flood program as it is. It’s essentially sending a signal that it’s safe to live in areas that are truly in harm’s way—and it’s not signaling that they need to move to higher ground.
But the recent history on reforming the system isn’t so good. There was an attempt in 2014 to pass the Bigger Waters Act, which would have reformed this insurance program to require that the premiums become actuarily sound. Meaning they would have to reflect your true risk—what it would cost on the open market to get insurance for a home with the flood risk that you had then.
And some premiums would have skyrocketed for a few homeowners, who of course complained to Congress. So Congress repealed that revision and put in a slower march towards actuarily-sound premiums. At our current rate, it will be difficult to ever get there. There are currently proposals I’ve seen, to roll back that even further. I think that’s the wrong direction. It’s time we address this and be honest with people: It’s too expensive for the federal government to insure them to live in these areas.
And we want them to get out of there for their own safety.
BAS: Is there anything we can learn from the experience of other countries? The Dutch, for example?
HILL: I do believe that there’s a cultural difference as to how they view floods in the Netherlands, where they’ve been dealing with the challenge of floods for thousands of years. Much of their nation is below sea-level, and they’ve got a system of dikes and barriers built to withstand a 1-in-10,000 year storm, the strictest in the world. And they have strong memories of past disasters; in 1953, they had a terrible flood that killed many people and that is still taught in the schools as a lesson. The memory is kept alive, and they said “Never again.” Consequently, the Dutch are very aggressive about finding ways to keep their nation safe from rising water levels, and they have the best water engineers in the world.
One interesting development is that they seem to be moving more and more away from hard structures alone. By that, I mean that they just finished a 10-year program where they decided that their philosophy couldn’t be to always keep water out; they also needed places where water could go to flood safely. So, that meant that a number of low-lying homes and farms in a few key areas had to be moved to make way for the inevitable incoming water.
Now, I don’t think that this could happen in the United States, at least as we currently operate. The Dutch made a collective decision that those people had to move for the good of the country, and they were relocated. Admittedly, the government paid them, helped them relocate, and got them nice homes, but they did have to move. I think there’s a collective understanding there, that we’re going to do this for the greater good, because we’re all at risk of flooding.
But we don’t have that in the States. Even with eminent domain, we don’t routinely move people.
People after Sandy said: “Oh, we’ll just do what the Dutch are doing.” But I think that it’s difficult if you don’t have that culture of “We’re all in the flood-fight together.”
BAS: Tell me more about what the Dutch are using in place of dams, dikes, and other hard structures.
HILL: In Rotterdam they’ve now got a neighborhood that was planned from the beginning to handle flooding, including floating buildings, elevated walkways, and flood control measures that are disguised as city parks.
It’s kind of cool. I mean, they thought it all through: We’re going to have the water wash through here, and pool over there. They certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think the Dutch understand the risk far better than Americans do, and have prepared for it.
BAS: What can US coastal cities do to make themselves more resilient if the feds don’t step up? For example, Boston is looking at a whopping $10 billion hurricane barrier to wall off Boston Harbor from storm surges. It sounds sort of like that floodgate project being built in Venice. To me, such a big massive thing seems extravagant. So, are there things that coastal cities can do that are relatively cheap and independent of the federal government?
HILL: Sometimes our default is to build and think we’ll have a permanent fixed barrier to always keep the water out. Instead, we should be thinking, in my opinion, about green infrastructure. Lloyd’s of London, that insurance company that’s been around in one form or other for hundreds of years, recently came out with a report that said that green infrastructure—like mangroves or wetlands—can keep a community safe, and at a cost that’s about 30 times cheaper than building a sea wall.
So, I believe it’s important to look at green infrastructure. And a lot of land-use decisions are not federal decisions, but local ones. So that’s where coastal communities can step up to the plate.
Now the trick is that to do it right, you’ve got to have a bigger, overall plan—water does not pay attention to local boundary lines.
So, towns, states, regions, have to plan together, and decide what they’re going to allow development for and how. If you let a subdivision to be put forward here, then do you have adequate drainage for it over there? If you lay down more concrete in a city, you need to make sure that the water has some place to go so we’re not just increasing the flooding risk. It’s a matter of looking at your evacuation routes and making sure you keep in mind the places for the water to go, as well as places for people to get out easily. And if it’s at sea-level, the communities involved may want to decide if it make sense to be investing in retro-fitting or improving a waste water treatment plant that’s going to be inundated in the future by sea rise.
But that means these towns or states have to plan together. Which does increase complexity.
So, a lot of this does not have to be from the federal government, but it is a matter of coordinating effort and putting good practices in place region-wide.
There are few communities, or collections of communities, systematically doing all this; the challenge is the political will, especially if the cost is immediate and the benefit is far down the road.
There’s a famous expression to describe this phenomenon: “Not in my term.” It’s tough for a local politician to say: “I know there’s a lot of crime right now, but I’d really like to focus on green infrastructure that will benefit us 20 years from now.” That’s a hard discussion.
BAS: What do you think is the role of the private sector in dealing with future Hurricane Harveys?
For example, the American Petroleum Institute has been quietly and steadily increasing its standards for offshore oil platforms over the years. A recent article in The Atlantic said that in the 1940s, the first off-shore oil platforms were about 20 feet above sea-level; in the 1990s, they were 70 feet above sea-level; and after Katrina, they’re 90 feet above sea level. I guess it’s in the best interests of the oil companies to make off-shore rigs that can withstand these kinds of storms. Do you think that indicates that private industry can get on board with measures to plan for climate-induced change?
HILL: I think they can. And I think that private industry is doing a lot that is not advertised. For example, the utilities have been doing a lot of work on resiliency in the West—such as what to do to keep their transmission lines from getting knocked out. And in the East, when ConEdison wanted a rate increase, lawmakers approved it on condition that this utility company do things like bury their cables underground and otherwise storm-proof its system—measures which cost the company a billion dollars.
So, you see there’s a lot occurring in private industry that’s just not being advertised. That said, there’s a lot more work to do, because the impacts of climate change are accelerating; it’s getting common to hear that a record’s been broken. We need to start expecting records to be broken, rather than being constantly surprised; otherwise, we’ll never be prepared. Because if we’re just planning to build new structures by relying on old, out-of-date records, then we won’t be prepared for what we’re very confident climate change will bring.
And those changes will occur even if we cut our carbon emissions to zero today. We have baked in a number of things from our previous emissions.
So, we need to have resilience at the forefront of any planning and any spending. Because we’re really at risk for having thrown away that money if we don’t include planning for a hotter, wetter, more flood-prone future.
We’re going to have some really important rebuilding to do in Houston, and we have to make it able to withstand sea level rise, rising temperatures, rain bombs, and all the other things that come along with climate change.
Any infrastructure has a long service life and is expensive. So we should make sure that it’s going to last the amount of time we intend.
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.