With hurricane destruction on the Gulf Coast and rising sea levels, many experts say it is time for a new way of thinking about future coastal development. Tom Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, explains his group's plan to initiate a national dialogue about how to rebuild New Orleans and safeguard other coastal cities. From examining federal flood insurance programs and economic incentives that drive development, to rehabilitating coastal ecosystems, Lovejoy discusses the role for Congress, the White House and the states in preventing another Hurricane Katrina.
Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Tom Lovejoy, he's the president of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. Tom thanks a lot for being here today.
Tom Lovejoy: Great to be here.
Brian Stempeck: Your group, in the very near future, is going to be launching a new effort about coastal redevelopment, kind of in the wake of hurricane Katrina. And taking a new look at how we should be building in coastal areas. Tell us what you're going to be doing on this front.
Tom Lovejoy: We really think it's time to look at the coastal issue for the entire country, sort of awakened by the tragic events on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. But really look at the whole issue including the latest projections of sea level rise, which are like another 3 feet in the course of this century. So we really need to look at everything from building codes to where people build to what the economic incentives are. Is the insurance in the wrong kind of place? What kinds of things need to be done to secure sort of the ecosystems and the wetlands themselves which provide protection? So just a serious relook at everything.
Brian Stempeck: Now it's a pretty major effort. I know that the idea is just to have almost $2 million in funding basically put towards this and have a major kind of national dialogue. Who do you see as being involved in this as you move forward over the next few months?
Tom Lovejoy: Well at the Heinz Center we always involve business, government, academia and environmental groups. So we will do all of that. And we've already talked to Admiral Lautenbacher at NOAA and Lynn Scarlet, his acting number two at Interior. And we'll probably even take it down to the level of the county, so that we'll have all of the different perspectives engaged.
Brian Stempeck: What do you see as the end goal of this objective? I mean basically as your starting this national dialogue. Are you talking about coming out with a report or some kind of federal policy? What is your ultimate goal?
Tom Lovejoy: There will be, ultimately, a report, which represents the consensus of the new look at what development in the coastal zone should be about. But it's not just a report that will sit on the shelf. It will have implications for policy. We'll take it up to the Hill. We'll have hearings. Make sure that there's a good communications effort involved, because otherwise it'll be just as always. All this stuff sitting around and more money getting invested and more people sort of getting into vulnerable positions until the next big storm surge comes along.
Brian Stempeck: I was going to say, not to downplay what you're doing, but in the past, basically since 1997, the Heinz Center has been working on various different coastal development reports and coming out with different findings about where we should be building and where we shouldn't. And it seems like a lot of those findings have really been ignored. I mean what's going to be different this time around?
Tom Lovejoy: Well I wouldn't say they were entirely ignored, but they certainly weren't taken sufficiently seriously. And I think what's different this time is we're going to really look at the whole issue and at the scale of the nation. And we have a nation which has been awakened by all the tragedy on our Gulf Coast.
Brian Stempeck: Now reading one of the background papers about this project you had something interesting to say. Basically you said we already know how to build communities that are disaster resilient. That are kind of disaster, that can rebound quickly. But we need to go a step further and kind of enhance the role of natural ecosystems in that whole big picture look. How exactly do you do that? Can you give us kind of a specific example maybe as you're looking at hurricane Katrina and rebuilding from that?
Tom Lovejoy: Part of what made the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans so vulnerable was the lack of attention to the state of the protective wetlands, including the barrier island which used to exist at the mouth of the Mississippi. There's a problem with 80 percent of the annual silt load of the Mississippi, it gets stopped by dams on the Missouri. And it's not there readily available to rebuild those wetlands. That's not the case everywhere. And there are lots of places where there are existing wetlands that need to be protected and to provide that kind of protection.
Brian Stempeck: Now as you move forward with this report what do you see as the role for the federal government in this issue? I mean it seems like since Katrina we saw the reaction at first, people talking about what needed to be done. But since then there doesn't seem to have been too much substance in terms of addressing some of these coastal priorities like you're talking about. What do you see for the role for the government or for Congress in this?
Tom Lovejoy: Well you know I think the most important role for the federal government in all of this is in the area of incentives and removing incentives that encourage people to do things which set them up to be vulnerable in the face of big storms and in the face of sea level rise. And set the incentives in the positive direction. So you're building more resilient systems.
Brian Stempeck: But I mean how exactly do you do that? I mean if you're talking about incentives it would seem like coastal development has just been booming for the past 30 years, 40 years, on both the East and West coasts. How do you fight that kind of major national housing trend with just a handful of incentives or a report like this?
Tom Lovejoy: Well one really big element in all of that is the federal insurance program. And basically what it means is you invest in constructing something in the coastal zone and you can't lose money. So you build something, it gets destroyed. You get the money to rebuild it and it can get destroyed again. I think we need to take a whole new look at that particular program and set the insurance program for locations and types of building which won't be so vulnerable.
Brian Stempeck: How do you see that happening, perhaps as a part of like a national flood plan that we see come out of Congress? Something like that?
Tom Lovejoy: It could easily come at the level of the Congress, but it will also have to involve the states and local governments because it's a real mix of jurisdictions there.
Brian Stempeck: Your group has also done some reports about the Coastal Zone Management Act, basically a bill that came out in 1972. And it's been about, over 30 years since that was put in place. And some of the reports that the Heinz Center has done have looked back at that and said it's really tough to kind of gauge the findings of what's happened here so far. There's not a lot of information about how successful this act has been. Is that something that Congress needs to reauthorize now?
Tom Lovejoy: I think it probably needs reauthorization, but it also probably could use some tinkering with in the light of what we now know and didn't even know three years ago about sea level rise from climate change. I mean that really changes the game a lot. The new estimates are much higher than before. Three feet of sea level rise in a century is going to be really rough in many places around the country, not just the Gulf Coast.
Brian Stempeck: Now your group has also looked at some of the human impacts here, basically as we talked about redevelopment and you're talking about the ecological systems around that and other issues. You've talked about how communities can respond to this as well. What work is the Heinz Center doing there?
Tom Lovejoy: Well there are two things that we've really looked at. One is sort of the hidden costs, the things that never get added up, the business that is shut down for nine months. That cost is never counted. And disrupted lives and it's a really long list. So the hidden costs which you really need to take into account if you really want to think through these issues. And the second, which tragically did not get paid much attention to with Katrina, is a real understanding of the social mix in these vulnerable areas and what that implies for evacuation plans.
Brian Stempeck: Do you think that overall it needs to be basically a better accounting of some of the costs of these disasters? I mean we hear about the toll when it comes to property damage, but do we need to factor in things like say the environmental damage that was done or like you were talking about, the social toll as well?
Tom Lovejoy: Social and environmental costs, yeah. Full cost accounting is what we really need to have.
Brian Stempeck: Is that possible though? How do you assign numerics to something like that?
Tom Lovejoy: Well it's always about approximations. That's even true in the world of things where there are prices. I mean the price of something one week will be different from six weeks later.
Brian Stempeck: Now what do you see as the role for institutes like the Army Corps of Engineers? We've had some people on our show who have been talking about how the Corps can basically, in some instances, build its way out of this problem with a better flood protection scheme, adopting some of the practices that are used in Japan and in the Netherlands. Is that something we need to do as well? And I guess where do you see the balance between just not building somewhere or trying to protect it with these kind of new technological innovations?
Tom Lovejoy: The interesting thing about the Corps is that it could just simplistically essentially rebuild everything that was destroyed. And leave all of those ecosystems in a condition where they're vulnerable and the communities are vulnerable in the future. Or the Corps can sort of look at it in a different context. And look at what restoring some ecosystem function can actually contribute. You can move earth to build a levy or you can move earth to restore the plumbing of the Everglades.
Brian Stempeck: I was actually going to ask about that. In Florida in the 1950s we saw a major effort to rebuild and kind of restructure the entire way the state operated after there was a major flooding incident and major hurricane had hit the state. Based on that, what do you see as the role for the state governments in this? I mean everybody talks about what the federal government needs to do, but what about in terms of other states following the roles? You know, have the model the Florida set in that case.
Tom Lovejoy: I'd say that's a really important question because you really can't just do it at the federal level. And in the case of Florida and in looking at Everglades the state has been engaged both in creating the problem as has the federal government, but also in the current efforts to restore the Everglades. That is a joint state and federal effort.
Brian Stempeck: All right. Tom we're out of time. We're going to stop there. Thanks a lot for coming on the show today.
Tom Lovejoy: Great to be here.
Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.
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