AS ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms. And as sea levels continue to rise, the surges of these future storms will be higher and even more deadly. We can’t stop these powerful storms. But we can reduce the deaths and damage they cause.
Hurricane Sandy’s immense power, which destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, actually pushed the footprints of the barrier islands along the South Shore of Long Island and the Jersey Shore landward as the storm carried precious beach sand out to deep waters or swept it across the islands. This process of barrier-island migration toward the mainland has gone on for 10,000 years.
Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back the shorelines to where they were. The federal government encourages this: there will be billions available to replace roads, pipelines and other infrastructure and to clean up storm debris, provide security and emergency housing. Claims to the National Flood Insurance Program could reach $7 billion. And the Army Corps of Engineers will be ready to mobilize its sand-pumping dredges, dump trucks and bulldozers to rebuild beaches washed away time and again.
If you ever want to have a really strange conversation with a politician, ask about floods. Rising water messes up more American cities, more extensively, more often, than virtually any other kind of disaster. But we don’t talk about it.
From 1993, when the Mississippi nearly took out Saint Louis, and did take out chunks of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota; to a less-heralded storm that did similar damage to Florida the same year; to the destruction of Grand Forks; to Katrina; to rivers that tore through much of the mid-Atlantic in 2005 and 2006; to Irene washing big parts of the Hudson valley away last year; to the submersion of large parts of New York City this week, floods are a real, annual threat. They’re the unsexy disaster, compared to earthquakes and twisters. But they are the one we face more often.
Most flood insurance is an extra, and it comes from a government program, the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by FEMA. This is because the free market doesn’t want to be in the flood business. Like earthquake insurance in the West, the market for flood insurance is an economist’s nightmare. Insuring against massive natural events wont to devour entire cities—supplemental Godzilla coverage—is not a great way to make money in the insurance game.