LAST OCTOBER, Hurricane Sandy leveled buildings across the New York City area. How the region rebuilds matters not just to the region’s millions of residents but to everyone who pays federal taxes. The Senate, after all, just approved $60 billion in supplemental aid for Sandy victims, a big-ticket reminder that, when disaster strikes, the country is often on the hook. And, scientists say, disaster is going to become increasingly likely in coastal areas as warmer global temperatures slowly but steadily raise sea levels.
Facing this reality requires policy at all levels of government that discourages Americans from making overly risky choices about what to build and where to live, lest taxpayers continually bear huge burdens when floods and other disasters hit. But that’s much easier said than done.
See, for example, the recent hubbub in New York City and New Jersey over a few blotches of color on new federal flood maps. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last week released its updated assessment of who is at risk of flood in Sandy-affected areas. The list of properties in New York City doubled to 35,000. Homeowners who find themselves in newly designated flood zones must choose between elevating their houses out of reach of future storm surges or paying many times more in flood-insurance premiums. Grants are available from various federal programs, but residents fret that the grants might not cover the full cost. The mayor of Brick, N.J., a beach town, counseled his constituents not to start rebuilding until they could challenge FEMA’s new maps.
The FEMA maps probably aren’t perfect. But the appeals process should not become a way for residents to avoid needed upgrades or to pay insurance rates that fail to reflect the risks they are taking, particularly when the government is subsidizing so much of the rebuilding. Even flood insurance policies that seem expensive offer a federal benefit, given that few private firms would touch the business.
In fact, leaders all over the coastal United States should be girding for worse than FEMA’s maps suggest. The maps, a FEMA spokesman explained to us, capture only the risk that these regions currently face — not future dangers associated with climate change. Structures built or rebuilt now may have to contend with those threats, and current policies will help determine how well they hold up. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), for one, is proposing to buy homes in at-risk areas and replace them with natural barriers such as dunes. That is only one possible way to toughen the country’s shorelines.