Save the Pieces: Repetitive Losses in the Wake of Hurricanes Fiona and Ian
Lajas, Puerto Rico, 9/20/22. Source: Axios
One of the biggest challenges in the field of disaster management is the future of houses and communities in environmentally vulnerable areas. Sometimes the morally correct thing to do is hard to discern - do you condone allowing people to put themselves in harm’s way? Or do you deny people the right to live where they have lived for years? How can communities across the U.S. reduce the problem of repetitive losses, and yet maintain their identity?
Repetitive losses are a huge and costly element of current disaster management challenges. Billion-dollar disasters are increasing in frequency and severity, with one of the most recent 3-year averages reaching 14.6 billion-dollar disaster events, compared to an average of 6.5 events per year over the last forty years. Solutions that reduce repetitive losses in the future could save taxpayers billions.
How to Move a Home
My hometown will be underwater in fifty years. It is a sad realization, but one I have come to terms with over the past couple years. However, that is only the end stage. The road to that point has been and will continue to be regularly packed with flooding and heavy damage from stronger and possibly more frequent storms and hurricanes. It will not just magically sink in an instant. It has already started, and there are hundreds of communities just like mine.
I am from a small town named Poquoson, which means “Great Marsh'' in Algonquin Native American. My parents live there on the water along with a good part of my family. It is one of those places where families have lived in the same town, often the same street or house, for generations and everyone knows everyone else. The town has been experiencing flooding for most of its recent history, given most of it lies at sea level. But it is getting more frequent, more severe.
Sooner rather than later, the town will have to reckon with this reality. Within my lifetime, a large portion of my town will have to move. This town has experience with rebuilding from disasters, but it has always been in the same place. There is a strong sense of history and culture here, a sense of place, of “home.” How do you move that? How do you convince people to try to? How do you move a “home?”
Over the last three weeks, Hurricanes Fiona and Ian have devastated Puerto Rico and Florida causing hundreds of billions in damages and killing over one hundred people. They were not the first to hit those places and they will not be the last.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. It caused $90 billion in economic damages and Congress allocated $71 billion for recovery. By the time Hurricane Fiona hit, permanent reconstruction was less than two years underway, meaning 72% of the funds had still not yet reached local communities. Hurricane Maria was a large category 4 storm and Fiona was only a category 1. However, Puerto Ricans had still not recovered fully from Maria and Fiona hit them when they were still down, compounding losses from Maria.
Much of the permanent infrastructure that had been rebuilt since Maria was washed away or greatly damaged when Hurricane Fiona hit many of the same places as Maria. It also knocked out power to the island's grid, which was scheduled to be overhauled with previously allocated government funding. Puerto Rico is due to get another $60 million in storm aid from Fiona, but early estimates of the damages are in the billions.
Florida is no stranger to hurricanes either. In 2018, Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm with 160 mile per hour winds, hit Mexico Beach in Florida. It demolished the small beach side town with little left other than concrete slabs. They received $100 million in federal grants and had to raise their building standards to withstand 140 mph category 4 winds. Building code policy recommendations are derived from probabilities of past storms. So given that historical likelihood of such a strong storm was low, with one unconfirmed storm and now Michael, recommendations only rose to category 4 storm standards, despite the fact that the very real storm which wiped Mexico Beach off the map was a category 5 storm.
Three years later, houses are back at the oceanfront being rebuilt to the new codes, with property values as high as ever. Many rebuilt structures still could not have withstood Hurricane Michael or would have suffered immense damages if it came again today. One resident, whose house was one of few left standing after the storm, was happy that his house, which he had specially engineered to withstand everything short of a tsunami, had survived. While it is impressive, in order to build it, he had to spend double the cost per square foot of a normal house.
Flash forward to two weeks ago and Florida has been hit again, overwhelmed by Hurricane Ian, a category 4 storm, and one that will result in around $63 billion in insurance claims, cause well over $100 billion in economic damage, and has already killed over 100 people, more than twice that of Michael.
Puerto Rico and Florida are different places but suffer from similar problems. Getting enough funding to rebuild is half the battle. But if communities do not take a serious look at their circumstances and they keep building in the same places in the same ways, they will continue to experience significant loss and higher costs, even if some of their structures can withstand the storms.
Arcadia, Florida, 10/4/22. Source: ABC News
Disasters, like hurricanes, can rip away so much of a community and expose some underlying conditions or policies within them that limit resilience to those disasters. Something as mundane as zoning codes that dictate building restrictions of certain areas can continue to allow people to live in very risky areas or not. A sense of strict independence and an aversion to planning can delay conversations about threats to a community as a whole. A glaring challenge in Puerto Rico is that many people built unpermitted homes on environmentally vulnerable land. They cannot access FEMA money to rebuild their homes, but housing social pressure is immense.
The list could go on, but the point is that a community needs strong foundational systems to adapt to changing local conditions and withstand extreme events. While disasters are particularly well-versed at exposing some of these underlying conditions, the preference is to avoid the catastrophic losses of property and life, and for communities to assess their risks before the storm demonstrates them.
In a changing world, communities should plan and prepare for what could happen, not the likelihood of what HAS happened. Many strategies exist that can make communities more resilient pre-disaster to shift them away from draining and devastating cycles of repetitive losses.
Enhanced zoning and permitting can transform occupied areas that are no longer safe for permanent residency or where the cost to rebuild structures strong enough is prohibitively expensive. Strengthening gray infrastructure, like levees, dams, and seawalls, can avoid further catastrophic damage from failure. Building and fortifying houses and other infrastructure, including bridges to standards that can withstand the increasing strength of future storms and not past ones, can reduce damage and shorten recovery times.
Natural defenses like wetlands, sand dunes, and other wind-abating vegetation are often some of the most effective measures in reducing the pressure placed on human infrastructure from storms. These assets aid in storm defense by dampening the force of high intensity winds and waves, but can also serve as recreational areas and support ecosystems that strengthen local economies. While solutions appear plentiful, it is up to communities to decide which portfolio of strategies is most effective and feasible for them.
It is not enough to just rebuild. It is also not always about moving. Houses can be built stronger, bridges sturdier, power grids more resilient. But sometimes it is about moving, and some communities will have to have difficult conversations to figure out what that means for them. This work needs federal and state support. Many financial resources currently exist to help fund these strategies, but initiative must be headed at the community level, with community understanding and community support.
These are hard problems. Some communities know destruction and what it is like to pick up the pieces. Others do not. Regardless, these communities across the country represent home to all who live in them. No matter where a community is, social connection to one another and the institutions that come from it are the pieces that create that shared sense of home, which can fuel adaptation to develop or rebuild resilient communities.
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