2020 has been an undeniably tough year already, and the hurricane season is projected to make it even tougher for communities along America’s eastern coast. Up to six major hurricanes are predicted, rising from an average of three, between the start of June though the end of November. Against the backdrop of an economy in recession and the looming risk of a COVID-19 spike later in the year, disaster mitigation needs to be a priority for local, state, and federal lawmakers.
Hurricanes pose a multifaceted threat to America’s Atlantic seaboard and Gulf coasts. At least 1,833 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 while, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey inflicted $125 billion in damage. Just last year, Hurricane Dorian wrought $1.6 billion worth of damage in the United States alone.
For the federal government, the cost of a major natural disaster this year would add insult to the economic injury on top of the global coronavirus pandemic. Despite a growing private market, the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) remains the country’s primary residential flood insurance provider.
But the program has more than $20.5 billion in debt – and that is only after congress cancelled $16 billion worth of debt in 2017. The NFIP has around $9.9 billion left of borrowing authority but, without dramatically resolving the NFIP’s solvency issues, a string of major hurricanes would force the federal government to authorize even more borrowing.
Similarly, for homeowners and businesses, a natural disaster during the coronavirus economic downturn could mean financial ruin. In part due to the NFIP’s outdated flood maps, countless at-risk properties lack flood insurance. When Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, for example, it was estimated that only 20% of damaged homes in the Houston area had flood insurance.
But hurricane flooding can also strike seemingly safe areas, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) notes that 25% of flood insurance claims typically come from outside of high-risk zones. Coupled with the strain of an economy already in recession, damage to uninsured properties could result in a wave of bankruptcies and foreclosures.
The risk of a fall COVID-19 resurgence makes disaster mitigation even more urgent. With homes destroyed and lives at risk, major hurricanes force thousands of people to flee for public shelters. But sheltering in close quarters presents a huge risk of communicable diseases. In the Houston NRG Center mega-shelter during Hurricane Harvey, health authorities successfully battled to contain a flu outbreak. But the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine, coupled with the extremely contagious nature of the novel coronavirus, efforts to contain an outbreak may not be so lucky this year.
Investing in flood resilience now will continue to pay dividends long after the challenges of 2020 are gone. Natural disaster mitigation follows one of the basic maxims of medicine: prevention is better than cure. According to a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar invested in hurricane surge mitigation efforts can save up to 7 dollars’ worth of damage.
And hurricane prevention measures also represent an opportunity to reconsider rehabilitating or stemming overdevelopment along natural coastlines. For instance, mangroves are one of nature’s best defenses against surging storm waves; in some instances, the damaging effects of Hurricane Irma in 2017 were reduced by 25% along the Florida coast due to natural mangrove barriers.
Although 2020 has already been a year fraught with challenges, the Atlantic hurricane season demands that we prepare for the possibility of several major hurricanes before the year is out. Local, state, and federal lawmakers need to pay close attention to the inadequacies of the NFIP as well as the need for local mitigation efforts. The threat of a second COVID-19 resurgence later in the year means that a coherent disaster policy is all the more urgent.