Natural Barriers Promote Coastal Resilience, Reduce Costs

WetlandsNEW YORK—Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy had devastating impacts on the northeast coastline, debilitating parts of New York and New Jersey. While also in the path of the storms, Delaware saw minimal impact, which the state’s former head of natural resources and environmental control, Colin O’Mara, attributed to its conservation efforts.

Now president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, O’Mara spoke at the New York Recovery and Resilience Leadership Forum here June 2, explaining that the state had been building up natural barriers and testing its resilience with various resources.

“During the storm we were checking sandbags and making sure systems were in place and I was wondering if these systems were going to hold,” he said. “What we found was that the system did work.” He noted, “One of the reasons you haven’t heard much about what happened in Delaware, compared to New Jersey and New York, is the state’s investments in wetlands, living shoreline projects and oyster beds. These natural systems can absorb the shock of crashing waves and absorb water.”

A living shoreline is a habitat-friendly alternative to rip rap, bulkhead or stone revetments, creating wetland habitat that supports blue crabs, oysters, fish, birds and plants. They can also stop erosion, increase water quality and protect the shoreline from erosion, according to the state of Delaware’s website.

A number of municipalities across the country are making significant advances in natural infrastructure, O’Mara said, “and you are not seeing big taxpayer bailouts of those communities because these systems work.”

At the same time, he noted, many areas do not encourage these types of investments. “In fact, there are a number of policies that are actually putting people in harm’s way,” he said. “We’ve been trying to think through how to have traditional market forces work to the advantage of resilience, instead of having a massive bailout after an event, which is a liability to the taxpayer.”

Conversations about mitigating with natural resources, however, often get nowhere because people believe their insurance programs will bail them out. “Because of government programs, people are actually paying so much less than the insurance value they are receiving, that natural resources as a solution will lose,” O’Mara said. As a result, “All of a sudden that coast seems more developable because the landowner developing it isn’t actually bearing the cost.” The real problem is that, after the money has been made and a homeowner is living in the house, the risk is still there. “So you’ve privatized the problem, but you have socialized all of the risk,” he said.

Instead, O’Mara believes it is critical that information about the real costs of destroying a dune, along with the protections it brings be available. “This isn’t an easy conversation, but it is actually an area of commonality,” he said. “Whether you want to reduce government spending, reduce liability or foster more private sector activity, this is an area that shouldn’t be partisan at all.”

Projects of this nature are currently in the works in New York City; Cape May, New Jersey; and Boston, Massachusetts. Such spending on the front end produces much higher savings in the long run, O’Mara said, noting that putting natural resources to work can lower insurance rates and generate private sector involvement.

“We can do things a lot smarter and be a lot safer than we are right now,” O’Mara said. “This should be as bipartisan as anything we do in this country. The economics make sense, the science makes sense and the social science makes sense.” After all, at the end of the day, “people just want to be safe,” he said.

Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Releases Recommendations

Hurricane Sandy damage to New Jersey boardwalk

President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force released their findings yesterday, sharing 69 recommendations to repair existing damage and strengthen infrastructure ahead of future natural disasters.

The task force encouraged an emphasis on new construction over simple repair, citing the impact of climate change on severe weather events. “More than ever, it is critical that when we build for the future, we do so in a way that makes communities more resilient to emerging challenges such as rising sea levels, extreme heat, and more frequent and intense storms,” the report said. Construction designed for increasingly dangerous storms, infrastructure strengthened to prevent power failure and fuel shortage, and a cellular service system that can subsist during disasters are all critical investments to prevent future loss.

Recommendations included streamlining federal agencies’ review processes for reconstruction projects, revising federal mortgage policies so homeowners can get insurance checks faster, and making greater use of natural barriers like wetlands and sand dunes. The team also said that planners need better tools to evaluate and quantify long-term benefits of future projects along the shoreline, but did not detail what would be best ecologically and economically.

According to USA Today, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Sandy task force report shows that “we have much work to do hardening our energy, telecommunications and transportation infrastructure,” and that “the federal government must be a proactive partner with local governments and the private sector.”

Some of the task force’s suggestions have already been put into place. As the AP reported, this includes the creation of new Federal Flood Reduction Standard for infrastructure projects built with government funds and promotion of the Sea Level Rise Tool, which will help builders and engineers predict where flooding might occur in the future.

The government has closed over 99.5% of over 143,000 National Flood Insurance Program claims related to Hurricane Sandy and paid out more than $7.8 billion to policyholders, according to the task force report. The federal government should support local efforts to mitigate future risk by funding local disaster recovery manager positions and encouraging homeowners to take steps to reduce the risk of future damage, which will also make rising flood insurance premiums more affordable, the report said. The team has also launched Rebuild by Design, “a competition that will attract world-class talent to develop actionable plans that will make the Sandy-impacted region more resilient.”

Hurricane Sandy Six Months Later—By the Numbers

Six months later, the cleanup from Hurricane Sandy is still a work in progress. The Storm that caused some $50 billion in damage and killed 159 people has not been forgotten by those along the east coast. The following is a snapshot of Hurricane Sandy by the numbers.

From the Property Casualty Insurers of America:

The following is a list of allocated funds by the Department of Interior. The complete list of approved projects can be viewed here.

  • $42.35 million: The amount New Jersey will receive from the Department of Interior. The funds will be used to repair and rebuild parks, refuges and other federal assets damaged by the storm
  • $104.9 million: A portion of this amount will go to New Jersey for multistate projects.
  • $2.85 million: The amount allocated to New Jersey by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to make repairs to the Ohmsett oils pill research facility in Leonardo, New Jersey.

For a look at how the property/casualty industry was affected by Sandy, we turn to the Insurance Information Institute for this chart illustrating the p/c industry net income for fourth quarters from 2007-20012.

The National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency supplied these Hurricane Sandy funding numbers.

  • $1.4 billion: The amount the Small Business Administration has loaned to homeowners, renters and businesses in New York. New Jersey received $731 million.
  • $3.4 billion: The amount the National Flood Insurance Program has paid in New York claims. Another $3.3 billion was paid in the state of New Jersey.
  • $959 million: The amount the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid out for housing assistance in New York. $387.4 in housing grants was given to to New Jersey residents in need.

For a breathtaking photo essay on the effects of Hurricane Sandy, head to Boston.com.

The Problem With How We Prepare for Disasters

On January 29, Robert Meyer came to New York to speak about disaster resilience. As a co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Process Center, few know more about the topic than he does.

The crowd was mostly University of Pennsylvania alums who have migrated north to Manhattan, so the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy was fresh on their minds and it became the most common point of reference used by Meyer to explain how we do — and do not — prepare for disasters.

He detailed offered an array of reasons for why we — as individuals and a society — tend to under-prepare for natural hazards. “We tend to be overly myopic, over-concentrating on a small set of preparation actions,” said Meyer.

Interestingly, however, there is an inverse to this. He noted that some people, particularly those who have gone through a traumatic event in the past, like 9/11, do prepare well. They adopt what he called a “psychology of misfortune” and tend to remain extra vigilant.

“That’s unfortunately an outlier,” said Meyer.

Another noteworthy, yet counterintuitive, aspect of preparedness is that most many people actually overestimate the likelihood of bad events. This is based on research, he said, and flies in the face of the often-held belief that the biggest impediment to good preparation is people saying “it won’t happen to me.”

Instead, people believe it will happen to them — they just don’t understand what “it” is.

When surveyed before Sandy, for example, people in the New York area overestimated their risk of getting hit with hurricane-force winds. By a ton. The public in some places put their chances of being hit at some 50%-60%.

The real, scientific likelihood was closer to 10%-20%.

Yet, even though people vastly overestimated their risk, they still maintained an optimistic view about their safety. The huge majority believed the would be safe during the storm.

This speaks to a gross misunderstanding of the risk actually faced.

Outside of a tornado or sustained Category 3 or higher hurricane-strength winds, storm surge and flooding are usually the real risks for most people in most zip codes. Prolonged power outages, particularly in the Northeast in the late fall when cold temperatures are a concern, would also far outrank wind-fueled projectiles as far as a threat to life, security and economy.

In short, people neither understood the science of the storm nor the long-term disruption it could potentially have.

And this wasn’t an anomaly. Meyer noted that, often, it’s not the hurricane itself that you have to prepare for but the two weeks after the hurricane when you don’t have power. But, as with Sandy, many people thought if they got through that first night or two, they would be all set.

This all suggests an lack of understanding, and something all stakeholders in the area of disaster preparedness will have to work to overcome in the months, years and decades ahead.

“We dont have a problem deciding whether to prepare,” said Meyer. “We have a problem deciding how much to prepare.”