By Collin O’Mara and Stephen Weinstein
Since Superstorm Sandy, New York City has implemented a significant resiliency program to protect it from the next storm. Unfortunately, New York’s efforts are not the norm.
There is a wide disparity among the nation’s cities when it comes to measures to limit the impact of natural disasters. As another hurricane season begins, a national risk-reduction strategy is needed to ensure that vulnerable areas have the necessary fortifications in place, including protective natural systems and open space.
Sandy exposed weaknesses in New York’s infrastructure, such as outdated building codes and weak coastal defenses, that made the city susceptible to storm damage. With support from the federal and state governments, the city has focused on strengthening its defenses, making more than a dozen updates to building codes with stricter requirements aimed at protecting buildings from floods.
Throughout New York, coastal defenses are being strengthened, including the development of a flood-protection system for Lower Manhattan and restoration of New York’s natural features. For example, along Staten Island, the Rockaways and Coney Island, natural defenses such as sand dunes are being developed as flood barriers. Additionally, 68 acres of Staten Island wetlands are being restored to preserve their value for fish and wildlife while enhancing their capacity to reduce storm impacts.
Risk-reduction efforts that preserve or restore intact ecosystems, in combination with open-space protections and engineering retrofits, are the best way to prevent storm damage and ensure a quicker recovery when natural disasters strike. Major hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy are becoming more frequent and are increasingly difficult to predict. Having resiliency measures in place before a storm strikes is the most effective way to protect lives and property.
Unlike reactive post-disaster spending, allocating resources for proactive disaster prevention and mitigation has been proven to save money down the road. According to a 2007 study by FEMA, every dollar spent on mitigation efforts leads to $4 in future benefits. In New York’s case, investing in risk reduction measures will save billions of dollars down the road.
These savings are one reason that communities across the country have initiated resiliency-enhancement projects such as buying out high-risk properties, raising the elevation of homes and developing financial incentives, such as tax-preferred accounts to encourage people to save money for storm preparation.
However, too many of our public policies focus on post-disaster response instead of disaster prevention and mitigation. Indeed, a number of programs, such as the National Flood Insurance Program—though well-intended—actually have the effect of putting people in harm’s way. Research shows that subsidized, scientifically unsound rates encourage risky development in flood-prone regions and reduce the incentives for property owners and communities to prioritize resilience.
Congress must take a leading role to encourage mitigation at the federal, state, local and individual levels to ensure that all communities are protected, with a stronger emphasis on intact ecosystems, open-space preservation and engineering retrofits.
Further delaying action will put more Americans at risk and make it difficult and costlier to rebuild and recover in the wake of the next major storm. Congress should follow New York’s lead and implement a robust mitigation strategy that will save lives and property in the future.
Collin O’Mara is the president of the National Wildlife Federation. Stephen Weinstein is the group general counsel of RenaissanceRe and chair of the RenaissanceRe Risk Sciences Foundation.