Marcus Neto

To Prevent Disaster, Rethink Development

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published September 26, 2017 in U.S. News & World Report.  

As floodwaters recede, storm-battered Texans, Floridians and Puerto Ricans are taking stock of their losses. While it is too soon for a final tally, it is clear that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have taken a dreadful toll in lives and treasure: some 75 people died in Harvey’s floodwaters; Hurricane Irma killed at least 20 in the U.S., while at least 16 people have died as a result of Maria in Puerto Rico. Preliminary estimates peg Harvey’s and Irma’s damage alone at $290 billion.

Unfortunately, there is more where that came from. Flooding is on the rise across most of the US; Houston alone has seen four so-called 100-year floodssince the spring of 2015. Perhaps the only thing we can say for sure is that the weather is increasingly uncertain. Yet we continue to build on the coast and in vulnerable floodplains — putting more people than ever in harm’s way.

And, as floods become more frequent and damaging, taxpayers pick up a growing share of the tab. We pay first with a tax code that heavily subsidizes poorly designed development in the wrong places. Second, we pay for cleanup and rebuilding through the National Flood Insurance Program, which underwrites coverage for American homes and businesses. There is heated — and necessary — debate about whether the NFIP sufficiently discouragesunwise risk.

But a focus on flood insurance misses an even greater opportunity to reduce risk: development.

We are building the future every day: More than half of the built environment we will inhabit in 2025 did not exist in 2000. Through development, we can greatly reduce — or increase — our risk of floods and other disasters. Today, we mostly do the latter.

Sometimes risks are denied: In Florida and elsewhere, coastal development is booming despite well-documented sea level rise. Or risks are not well understood: in Houston, many thought they were safe because their homes were not in FEMA’s “special flood hazard area.” But, as Harvey made clear, they were very much in the flood plain.

The good news is that — unlike the weather — development is squarely within our control. Decisions about where and how to build are shaped by myriad public and private programs — and these can be used to reduce risk. For example, we can:

Avoid building in danger zones. It seems blindingly obvious, but it makes no sense to build in areas at high risk for flooding — especially with hefty taxpayer subsidies. It happens, though, because waterfront properties are in great demand, commanding premium prices that boost real estate tax income for local governments. We need to change subsidies and incentives so that developers and property owners do not externalize the costs of building in disaster prone areas, and promote land-use policies that discourage poorly designed and constructed building in high-risk areas that are difficult to evacuate.

Raise standards (and houses). For millennia, competent designers and builders have planned for uncertain weather by building stronger for safety. Today, the built environment must be held to higher standards. For example, constructing new housing so that living space is 4 feet above the base flood level adds little to the cost of a home — typically about $5,000. If that had been standard practice in Houston, the vast majority of flood damage from Harvey would have been prevented. Higher standards can be implemented through rebates and other incentives; new “standards of care” for engineering, architecture and other professions; and federal regulations requiring damage-resistant building codes for new construction.

Think before rebuilding. In the wake of disaster, we should resist the temptation to return to pre-disaster conditions. The billions of dollars to be spent in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico offer an extraordinary opportunity to model safe building practices and reduce risk. In some cases, that means not rebuilding at all: In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, the city bought up over 1,000 repeatedly flooded properties, converting them to public parkland. Similar buyouts are now under discussion in Houston and the Florida Keys. And salvaged properties can be retrofitted for resilience: New York City revamped its building codes after Superstorm Sandy, making it easier to move critical systems above flood levels.

While we are rethinking building practices, why not mandate zero net energy homes that use renewable sources to produce the energy they consume? If that became the norm, we might be able to head off the worst of climate change — and the flooding and other disasters that come with it.

For now, floods are here to stay. But, as the geographer Gilbert White wisely observed, “Floods are acts of God; flood losses are largely acts of man.” If we continue to ignore this growing risk, Americans will pay with hard-earned tax dollars — and sometimes, with their lives. But there is an alternative. We can use the power of development to build a more resilient future.