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Federal report says Sandy recovery spending must account for future climate change

The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, a presidentially appointed group in charge of coordinating rebuilding efforts in the states devastated by last year's storm, yesterday issued a report stressing the need to take climate change into account when investing federal funds in disaster recovery.

The 200-page strategy outlines 69 different recommendations and emphasizes the importance of using the latest science to strengthen communities against global warming's impacts. It also acknowledges the shortfalls of the National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood insurance maps, which do not account for future sea-level rise, although it does not indicate any immediate measures to solve this issue.

"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," said Shaun Donovan, task force chairman and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a letter introducing the report.

"It is important not just to rebuild but to better prepare the region for the existing and future threats exacerbated by climate change," he added.

'Green infrastructure' helps strengthen resiliency

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The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force was created by President Obama last December and is charged with coordinating the recovery effort at all levels of the government, as well as within the private and nonprofit sectors.

In the letter, Donovan noted that in 2012, the United States dealt with 11 weather and climate-related disasters that cost more than $1 billion each, accounting for more than $110 billion in damages. Superstorm Sandy alone damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes and racked up $65 billion in economic losses.

"We know that every dollar we spend today on hazard mitigation saves us at least $4 in avoided costs if a disaster strikes again," Donovan wrote. "By building more resilient regions, we can save billions in taxpayer dollars."

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on climate preparedness, called it a "refreshing document," saying "seldom have we seen that type of forward-thinking approach in our disaster recovery and response efforts."

"The emphasis here, despite the title, is not necessarily on rebuilding," Moore said. "It's not about putting everything back the way it was before Sandy. A lot of the recommendations are about protecting against future disasters and generally reducing the region's risk from climate-related natural disasters."

The task force garnered praise from other advocacy groups in addition to NRDC for the report's explicit acknowledgement of climate change, as well as its substantial focus on "green infrastructure" and support for blackout-preventive microgrids and distributed generation.

The report highlights several successes with "green infrastructure," or natural systems like wetlands, sand dunes and forests that help with climate resiliency. For example, oyster reefs at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina absorbed a portion of the energy from Superstorm Sandy's storm waves and protected some areas from substantial erosion.

With such benefits in mind, the task force recommended that green infrastructure options be considered in all post-Sandy infrastructure investments.

Can climate change be factored into flood insurance?

The report includes a 15-page section dedicated to upcoming threats due to climate change, stating that sea-level rise and increases in hurricane activity and extreme rainfall are realities the Northeast must account for as it rebuilds.

"The impacts of Hurricane Sandy are evidence that coastal plains currently underestimate extreme flooding because they do not adequately account for sea level rise and the possibility of low probability, high impact storm surge events," it states.

And among the climate-focused initiatives outlined in the report, many have already been put into action.

For example, the report notes that major federal investments in Sandy-affected communities must adhere to a "minimum flood risk reduction standard," which takes sea-level rise and more frequent storms into account. In order to receive federal funding, rebuilding projects must "be elevated or otherwise flood-proofed according to the best available FEMA guidance plus one additional foot of freeboard."

It also pushes for the increased use of a federally supported sea-level rise calculator to help local developers and floodplain managers assess future risks.

But while the report recommends measures to "reduce consumer confusion" about FEMA's flood maps and attempts to tackle some of the affordability challenges looming with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, it includes no specific policy initiatives to address sea-level rise as it pertains to flood insurance.

"That's one of the weaknesses in some of the things that FEMA's implementing right now," said Moore. "There is a failure on their part to explicitly recognize climate change impacts in some of their new maps, whether that's sea-level rise or just the increased risk of flooding on inland waterways from extreme precipitation events."

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued its own report criticizing federal agencies for not taking climate risks into account with the public flood insurance program (ClimateWire, Aug. 14)

Although she said there was still "a long way to go," Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy Program, was heartened by the heavy focus on climate change in the task force's report.

"This feels very positive," Spanger-Siegfried said. "I think, to date, we've had a lot of good adaptation, planning and recommendations at different scales, but they have been much more conceptual. ... [T]he report is saying, 'This is how we need to do business now. Climate change is a central piece.'"

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