4 smart investments helped these communities weather extreme storms

Shannon Cunniff

Designing safer and smarter communities that can cope with flooding and other extreme weather is cost-effective and often easier than we assume.

By taking meaningful steps to protect themselves, these vulnerable cities and states became more resilient to storms, while saving tax dollars long-term.

1. Stricter codes, better design deliver for South

After the destruction from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida became the nation’s leader for implementing and enforcing superior building codes to reduce the impact of hurricanes. These codes proved their worth during Hurricane Irma this September when buildings were better able to withstand the storm, likely savings millions in damages

Elevating new buildings, as the Florida codes required in flood-prone areas, typically costs less than 1 percent of the total building cost for each foot a building is raised.

Such investments pay for themselves in as little as one or two years in areas with the highest risk of flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has found.

Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish invested $2.4 million to elevate 23 homes after Hurricane Katrina – a significant, but worthwhile, investment. When Hurricane Isaac struck in 2012, none of these homes were flooded, avoiding some $2.2 million in losses.

The upgrades to these homes nearly paid for themselves after a single storm event. With more storms in the offing, the return on this investment will continue to grow.

2. Wetlands saved NJ $425 million in damages

Preserved salt marshes, mangroves, reefs and other natural wetland defenses prevented $425 million in damages in New Jersey during the 2012 superstorm, a Lloyd’s of London study found.

On average, wetlands in the northeast can reduce property damages from storms and flooding by 20 percent, Lloyds reported. New Jersey’s Cape May Point, for example, suffered virtually no damage during Sandy after a $15-million project to rehabilitate wetlands and dunes in the area in the early 2000s.

Other countries see similar advantages to protecting and restoring their natural coastal infrastructure.

In seven out of eight Caribbean nations, for example, reef and mangrove restoration proved to be one of the most cost-effective approaches for building coastal resilience.

3. $13-million dune project kept Fla. homes safe

Dunes successfully protected Jacksonville’s beach-front homes during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, except for where gaps between dunes allowed floodwaters into the streets.

After taking the brunt of Matthew’s waves, the eroded dunes needed to be restored quickly before the inevitable next big event. Fortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers finished a $13.5-million project to repair the dunes just a week before Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017.

While other parts of Jacksonville experienced flooding, homes along this 6.5 mile stretch of beach were protected.

Healthy dunes are one our best natural means to protect built infrastructure from storm waves and can even thwart storm surges. 

The 600,000 newly planted sea oats along Jacksonville Beach, which also survived Irma, will expand to strengthen and grow these critical dunes.

4. NC city buys out flood-prone homes, saves $25M

Since 1999, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina have gradually removed 400 homes, apartment buildings and businesses from flood-prone areas, saving taxpayers $25 million in the process.

The voluntary buy-out program has created a safer building stock in the area while recreating an open floodplain. This, in turn, expanded recreation and public space in the rapidly growing Charlotte metropolitan area.

By making room for rivers to expand temporarily during heavy rains, these actions will reduce downstream flooding. Such investments, expected to help the community avoid $300 million in future flooding costs, will boost Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s economic competitiveness long-term.

Resilience planning must be prioritized

Beyond the investments that states and cities are making today to protect citizens from extreme weather, there are steps we should take as a nation.

Rethinking and expanding regular use of flood insurance far beyond the traditional 100-year floodplain is one – creating regional plans to prevent upstream flooding is another.

It will require states and the federal government to make comprehensive resilience planning a priority – work we think should begin now.

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