FEMA, which is updating flood insurance maps from the 1980s, is setting up a “technical mapping advisory council” that will study how the agency might take future climate change into account. At this point, it still bases its analysis on historical data.
But Sandy’s devastating punch might bolster the case for change, given how it exposed many areas’ vulnerabilities to storm surge and sea level rise.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said policymakers need to acknowledge that the infrastructure in place along the East Coast cannot withstand the changing climate.
“Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality,” Cuomo said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”
Flood planning is based on historical data rather than future projections. And much of the infrastructure damaged in a storm is rebuilt exactly the same way, without taking into account the climatic changes underway.
FEMA draws the flood maps to provide guidelines to local authorities who determine where things can be built. Many developers and homeowners have resisted the idea of expanding the definition of flood risk because it raises costs and can restrict development. Policymakers “are afraid of the political backlash,” said Georgetown Climate Center executive director Vicki Arroyo.
And expanding the maps means increasing the area covered by the 44-year-old National Flood Insurance Program, which covers Americans in flood-prone areas with federally backed insurance provided they meet federal standards aimed at minimizing risks. The program was at least $17.75 billion in debt before Sandy made landfall, and the storm could deplete the program’s remaining $3 billion statutory borrowing authority. The insurance is voluntary.
Proponents argue that the flood insurance program provides coverage that would otherwise be unaffordable and saves taxpayers money by prodding communities to take precautions. Critics say the program encourages Americans to build in vulnerable areas, with 40 percent of the total payout going to 2 percent of properties that were repeatedly flooded.
“Climate change is only happening in one direction,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The temperature is warmer, the sea level is higher and the air is warmer so it can hold more moisture.”