How protecting our coastlines could save taxpayers billions

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How do we save millions (and perhaps billions) in federal tax dollars – while at the same time giving flood-prone coastal communities a more secure future?

A little-noticed, Jan. 30 White House executive order could be part of the answer. More on that in a minute, but first – let’s explore what’s at stake.

America’s vulnerable coastal communities are already disproportionately affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters, and the bills from such weather events, borne by taxpayers, will continue to rise in an increasingly unstable climate.

In the mid-1950s, federal aid accounted for less than 10 percent in total storm damage. Today, it covers more than 70 percent, according to a 2014 National Research Council report. At the same time, dollar losses from tropical storms have more than tripled over the past 50 years.

There’s also some good news here: For every $1 spent in mitigating natural hazards, society saves $4.

Which brings me back to that executive order.

A win for people and the environment 

The new Federal Risk Management Standard requires that new, federally funded structures are built at least two feet higher than previously required, consistent with standards already adopted by some 350 communities across America.

The proposed standard directs federal agencies to use natural systems, ecosystem processes and nature-based approaches where possible when developing alternative solutions for federal investments in floodplains. As a result, restoration and protection of natural defenses – such as beaches, dunes, oyster reefs, and wetlands – may be given greater credence.

It’s also a win for coastal communities.

None will be required to adopt new floodplain ordinances. Plus, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, an authority on these matters, has determined that implementing the new standard will not increase flood insurance rates, but likely decrease them.

Natural defense strategies pay off

How we protect coastal communities from storms is important, and the direction and flexibility provided by the new policies announced by the White House will enable federal agencies to take actions that improve community resiliency in environmentally friendlier ways – ways that provide value to communities year round, and not just during a storm event.

By providing open space, decreasing wave height and dissipating energy, this natural infrastructure solutions reduce risk and help protect homes, communities and critical infrastructure. They can also serve recreational and commercial objectives at a lower total cost for years to come.

Strategically placed natural infrastructure, coupled with more traditional hardened structures, such as levees – and approaches such as home elevation – help coastal communities design vibrant waterfronts

Acting now means we save tomorrow

In places such as the Mississippi River Delta and areas in the northeast ravaged by Super Storm Sandy, the effects of climate change and rising seas are becoming more and more evident.

By putting the spotlight on coastal resilience and adaptation now, and by giving federal agencies more flexibility to plan creatively, we are helping vulnerable communities make better use of natural infrastructure when planning for a safer and more prosperous future.

Last but not least, we will save federal tax dollars for the many other much-needed programs on which our country depends.

Shannon Cunniff

Shannon Cunniff

Shannon is Director, Coastal Resilience and is leading the development of our natural infrastructure program. Before joining EDF, she addressed sustainability, water resources and floodplain management policy issues as an executive with the U.S. departments of Interior and Defense.

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Comments

It could be easy to argue that something like the new Federal Risk Management Standard should have been enacted years ago. At least now we are starting to plan for what we know will be a more turbulent and unpredictable climate future.

Seems reasonable to me. One question, though: Aren't there some coastal areas where building just doesn't make sense and rebuilding should not be encouraged? How would situations like these be handled?

Yes, Claire, There are coastal areas where “retreat” will likely be necessary. We are looking to find ways to help people who’s primary residences and livelihoods are threatened by sea level rise and coastal storms relocate to safer, more resilient areas. Offering more timely buyouts in the wake of disaster events would be a positive step forward. Community planning ahead of disasters is another crucial tool.