The last time a hurricane landed on the shores of the United States, Americans' belief in climate change was at its peak and House Democrats would soon begin their march toward passage of climate legislation.
Five days before Hurricane Ike collided with Texas, presidential candidate Barack Obama said "the time to act is now" on a national catastrophe plan.
That was in 2008.
When Irene boils onto the East Coast this weekend, she will find a nation with degraded belief in global warming, a defeated climate bill, and the absence of a federal plan to address an ominously rising number of natural catastrophes.
Irene won't arrive totally uncontested. Capping emissions might be on ice, but smaller initiatives are going forward, including Obama's landmark standards making cars more efficient and less carbon-intensive.
Still, Irene symbolizes a passage of time in which climate skepticism has risen and is being used by some politicians to establish a conservative brand that discredits, even derides climate science. That means many advocates are focusing on smaller policies, like nuggets of climate adaptation in the National Flood Insurance Program.
The program is finishing an assessment on the impacts of climate change from stronger storms, rising oceans and heavier downpours. Initial findings say the size of areas declared to be floodplains could grow 45 percent by 2100.
Some of that is blamed on higher storm surges -- bulges in the ocean sometimes 50 miles long whipped together by hurricane winds. Surges could punch deeper onto shore as oceans rise and hurricane winds strengthen because of climate change, researchers say.
Irene is following a path similar to that of Hurricane Floyd, which came ashore in 1999 at North Carolina with a 15-foot surge that flattened homes and sand dunes. Both are Category 3 storms.
Irene's surge could be deadly when the hurricane crashes into North Carolina tomorrow, warns the National Hurricane Center. As the storm moves north over the weekend, it's expected to scour East Coast states with high winds and between 5 and 10 inches of rain.
High damage 'almost a given'
"Even inland, you're going to get a lot of tree-falling out of that, and you're going to get a lot of flooding out of that," Bill Read, who heads the hurricane center, told reporters yesterday. "It's almost a given."
Flood insurance can help the nation adapt to climate change and increased flooding from hurricanes, advocates say. Critics believe the current program encourages new construction along coastlines and rivers by offering low rates in risky areas. That is "maladaptation," they say, because it reduces natural areas that collect water while increasing the number of buildings that can be destroyed by natural disasters.
Other adaptation policies could be pursued -- just by instilling federal criteria that promote wetlands rather than impervious structures, supporters say. Those standards would stop projects like the Yazoo Pumps plan, an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that would have drained an area the size of Manhattan in Mississippi's Yazoo River Basin for farming. About half of the area faces a 50 percent chance of being flooded every year. The project, proposed 20 years ago, was vetoed by U.S. EPA in 2008, and a court upheld the decision this spring.
"The best protection money can buy is nature," said Joshua Saks, a water expert with the National Wildlife Federation. But he notes that Congress isn't pursuing adaptation policies in earnest. Legislation encouraging coastal homeowners to harden their homes against hurricanes and broader land-use policies that could reduce flooding aren't being considered.
"At this point, Congress still deals with these events one at a time," he said of Irene.
The flood insurance study on climate change will likely stir controversy, because it will suggest that more land should be off limits to building.
For now, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, whose agency oversees flood insurance, is focusing on Irene, not policies to mitigate damage from future storms through tougher building standards and higher insurance rates.
"Right now, a lot of people are talking about things that we need to look at in the future. And yes, we need to look at that risk [from climate change]," Fugate said yesterday. "But trust me, a few inches or a few feet difference [from climate change] won't make a big difference when we're talking about storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane."
"So what we want to focus on right now is life, safety and evacuations," he added.
Crisis planning for the future (sort of)
Congress dipped its toe into the controversial topic of disaster planning during the debt ceiling debate. The legislation includes a disaster fund that is meant to diminish deficit spending by pre-financing for natural catastrophes. The plan would set aside the average cost of disasters over the last decade, minus the staggering price tag of Hurricane Katrina.
Some observers believe that will lower the amount of money the government spends to rebuild infrastructure after a disaster. Fugate said his office is still studying the plan.
Congress' disaster fund is much more timid than the plan Obama supported in 2008. That plan, the "Homeowners' Defense Act," would have created state insurance programs to backstop smaller disasters and a federal reinsurance program to pay claims after mega-catastrophes.
The plan would reduce federal spending for disasters by collecting premiums from participating states, supporters say. But opponents, including environmentalists, claim it would further promote coastal development while exposing taxpayers to losses after a major hurricane.
It's unclear how bruising Irene will be. But its track up the heavily populated East Coast could cause major damage if it affects New York City and other metropolitan areas. When Floyd rolled over New York as a tropical storm in 1999, it caused major flooding, even without a storm surge.
In 2007, after an intense downpour, nearly all of the city's subway tunnels were flooded, crippling the system before morning rush hour. About 16,000 pounds of debris had to be removed from the tracks.
It's time to use current weather events, like Irene, as an analogy for future climate effects, says Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America.
He seemed miffed at the reticence to use single events as a sign of climate change. And he said politicians who deny that the world is changing might be shortchanging taxpayers.
"No one wants to put their finger on one event and say this is caused by a climate change scenario, but you have to start looking at these things as indicative of the very scenarios that the scientific community say are likely to play out -- increased precipitation, more severe storms, probably greater storm surge with rising sea level," Nutter said.
"It's one thing to debate science. It's quite another thing to translate that into dollars and cents. That's what programs like the flood insurance program do."
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