Two years ago, Superstorm Sandy exposed long-standing holes in our preparedness for natural disasters, sounding a massive alarm that more acute climate catastrophes were already at our doorstep.
Two years later, the U.S. remains unprepared fiscally or physically for another Superstorm Sandy, with disaster planning still geared toward response rather than prevention. Now is the time to reset national policy to make New York and the rest of the country ready for the next serious disaster.
The risks of our current ad-hoc approach are clear. Numerous fires and floods are draining dollars from disaster response programs all over the country. The National Flood Insurance Program, the federal agency charged with insuring homes in the path of floods, is sinking under more than $24 billion in debt piled up after hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy.
It is time to change course and move disaster planning in a more sustainable direction. Rather than sticking to policies that fail to keep up with natural occurrences in our climate, lawmakers should make headway on a plan to make the country more resistant to catastrophe.
A national plan would focus on improving resilience at the federal, state, local and personal level by ramping up investments to absorb the brunt of a disaster up front rather than on the back end. Smarter investment could use the power of natural ecosystems, such as swamps and marshes, to make communities more resilient to storms. Planning ahead pays dividends when the inevitable storm strikes, making recovery faster and easier on the wallet.
A renewed focus on resilience would also set a valuable trend for states and cities, which must begin taking steps to shield their residents for the real risks they face, such as making coastlines more flood-resistant and expanding incentives for mitigation. Many of these communities have already begun taking the lead on preparing for climate disasters and are badly in need of guidance and support from Washington.
States such as Louisiana and Florida offer residents a tax holiday for readiness supplies at the start of the hurricane season. As more states face flooding of the kind regularly experienced in New Orleans and Miami, this model should be implemented throughout the country. Florida GOP Rep. Dennis A. Ross has offered another spin on this idea, proposing Disaster Savings Accounts where funds can be deposited and used specifically to protect homes and other property. In return for planning ahead, account owners would get the funds deducted from their tax bill.
Risk-based insurance rates can also incentivize healthy habits. Flood insurance rates in particular have long failed to reflect accurate levels of risk, creating a false sense of security that has allowed development to crop up along vulnerable coastlines. While higher rates are inevitable in the long haul, they can be painful to many in the short term. Mitigating the financial pain for those who truly need it with means-tested subsidies and bonuses for mitigation measures can help ease passage of any effort to raise rates in the future.
The to-do list is long, but the legislative pipeline already contains proposals that can provide a jump start. In the hardest-hit corners of the country, policymakers have begun to open their eyes to the growing threats posed by hurricanes and other disasters. It is time for Washington to follow suit.
David Williams is president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance; Josh Saks is legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation.