3 strategies for rebuilding hurricane-stricken communities

David Festa

Editor’s note: This post was updated on Sept. 18, 2018

A year ago, Houston flooded during a tropical cyclone that inflicted $125 billion in property damages. Now it’s North Carolina’s turn to suffer catastrophic flooding as rivers continue to rise days after Hurricane Florence slammed into the state.

The immediate priority is still to get people to safety. The next – and bigger – challenge, once clean-up is done, will be to rebuild the right way to keep coastal communities safer and more resilient the next time a huge storm blows in.

I believe there are three ways we can better protect our increasingly flood-prone states. They need our immediate attention.

1. Strengthening building codes

One of the biggest lessons learned from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was that building codes matter. The Category 5 storm tore a vicious path through South Florida, killing more than 40 people, destroying more than 25,000 homes and damaging another 100,000.

At the time, it was the costliest disaster in United States history, with $24.5 billion in insured losses.

The scale of destruction was so widespread that it forced the state to, among other things, reexamine its spotty building codes, which had varied from county to county and been largely ignored.

In the decade following Andrew, officials – working with homebuilders – rolled out a set of statewide, mandatory standards and began to enforce high-wind design provisions for residential housing.

The tougher codes – the strictest in the nation – proved their worth in 2004, when four hurricanes slammed into the state. Follow-up reports from FEMA and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety showed that homes built under the new codes fared [PDF] better than pre-code houses, and insurance claims dipped.

Despite this success, Florida lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to loosen the standards under the guise of removing burdensome regulations. Perhaps Florida and other states in Hurricane Alley should take note of The National Institute of Building Sciences’ recent assessment: Money spent on reducing hazard risk is a sound investment, producing $6 of benefits for every dollar spent.

Not to mention that prevention also saves lives.

2. Building multiple lines of defense 

While we can’t fully protect coastal communities from increasingly powerful and extreme storms, we can lower risks by helping them shift from fighting nature to working with nature.

This means letting floodplains do what they do best – absorb floodwaters – and getting people out of harm’s way by not building there in the first place.

In floodplains that are already developed, meanwhile, we must prepare buildings codes that help communities withstand the impacts of climate change.

Working with nature also means taking advantage of natural assets to complement traditionally engineered approaches such as dams, levees and concrete channels.

Wetlands, barrier islands, coastal forests, dunes and reefs act as front-line shock absorbers that reduce the speed of damaging waves, floods and winds. Together with gray infrastructure, they offer coastal communities maximum protection.

This isn’t a new idea. The landscape and economy in the Netherlands were built on 1,100 years of water engineering. Canals draining, collecting and moving water around are everywhere.

And where there aren’t high dikes walling off the North Sea, you’ll find beautiful expanses of vegetated dunes that protect communities, provide habitat for wildlife and opportunities for recreation. No reason we can’t do the same here in the U.S.

3. Engaging and giving people a voice

Helping communities recover from disaster may seem like a no-brainer, but as a practical matter, it’s a monumental challenge influenced by values and cultural norms.

In many cases, people – some of whom have lost everything – will need to switch lifestyles or permanently give up ancestral homes as they rebuild in more secure areas.

When rebuilding from the ground up, top-down directives rarely work. Empowering affected communities to shape their own futures will have better long-term results.

We can see this approach underway in Louisiana, where Environmental Defense Fund and other organizations are collaborating with communities in Plaquemines Parish to help residents understand flood risks and inform their own decisions about what to do next. The parish southeast of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and is America’s ground zero for sinking land and sea level rise.

The approach was recently recognized by the Stanford Social Innovation Review as an “innovative breakout” and is now being extended to other parishes in southeast Louisiana.

Indeed, rebuilding storm-ravaged communities and preparing our towns and cities for future weather disasters requires all of us to think outside the box and make some hard decisions, including our elected officials. It’s nothing we as Americans haven’t done before – and we’ll all be better off because of it.