Policy changes needed to limit hurricane damage

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US cities must start to plan infrastructure in an ecologically sensitive manner

The flood waters have not yet entirely receded from Houston and the Gulf Coast, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott is already talking about damage on the order of US$180 billion (S$242 billion), which would make Hurricane Harvey the most expensive storm in US history.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, threatening damage to another heavily populated region.

Here are three ways to either build back better or work to prevent future storm devastation.

Home owners in Texas have already filed 73,000 claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program.

The federal government-backed scheme underwrites some 5 million policies a year, including more than 425,000 in the area affected by Harvey. One in four offers subsidised rates that do not reflect the true cost of providing flood insurance.

As Congress returns for fall, lawmakers are already dealing with the need to approve emergency funds to keep the US$7.5 billion programme from going bankrupt before Harvey claims can be fully paid out.

In theory, the programme was designed to keep home owners away from flood-prone areas by enacting strict rules on property within 100-year floodplains - the land predicted to flood during a 100-year storm, which has a 1 per cent chance of occurring in any given year.

In practice, antiquated flood maps - which do not account for the increased frequency of severe storms and flooding caused by climate change and over-development of waterfront areas - and an unwillingness to enforce the rules have wound up perversely subsidising flood insurance in risky areas.

At the same time, four-fifths of homes damaged by Harvey did not have flood insurance because they were outside the 100-year zone.

While Congress should honour the claims, the programme must be reformed to use updated flood maps that err on the side of caution.


Terms like 100-year flood are based on a questionable pretence of reliable climate patterns. The rainfall from Harvey was the third 500-year flood in Houston in three years.

Scaling back subsidies will also deter home owners from buying in flood-prone places as they factor in the higher cost of insurance.

Retreat is a dirty word in the US. It should not be.

The government has spent US$750 million to buy out 1,500 home owners in the New York metropolitan area after 2011's Hurricane Irene and 2012's Superstorm Sandy.

Severely damaged Staten Island neighbourhoods such as Oakwood Beach are slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature as wetlands take over former single-family plots.

When the next storm hits New York, there will be fewer risks to human life and less property damage.

How were home owners persuaded to give up their homes?

The government paid up to 15 per cent over the house's pre-storm value. For many who feared future flooding, it was too good an offer to refuse. The upfront cost may be steep, but the long-term savings could finally make the flood insurance programme solvent.

Houston and its suburbs have resisted any effort to plan its growth in an efficient or ecologically sensitive manner. The city is unlikely to change overnight, but as rebuilding takes place, the city and its neighbours will have to adopt rules that shape the built environment.

Officials in areas hit by Irma, where paved-over wetlands can exacerbate storm surges and floods, will also have to plan their communities to be more climate-resilient.

Chief among any new regulations will be the need to carve out more "green infrastructure" that can absorb floodwaters. It starts with ripping up asphalt and replacing it with plants and grasses so water can soak into the ground.

In Philadelphia, the award-winning Green City, Clean Waters scheme came about in response to a mandate to build a new rainwater storage facility. Instead, the Philadelphia Water Department decided to manage storm runoff by squeezing in acres of newly permeable land in schoolyards, industrial sites and even parking lots. - REUTERS

The writer is a UN correspondent for urban innovation news outlet Citiscope.

Weatherunited statesTYPHOON/HURRICANE