Nutter: How Can Government Help Prepare for Mother Nature?

Nature is a fickle partner in our daily lives. It creates rivers for commerce and recreation, beaches of wondrous beauty, soft breezes and majestic color in spring, and quiet reflection as the snow falls. At the extreme, it causes vast flooding, storm surge, destructive tornadoes and severe winter storms. Recent natural catastrophes, such as the Joplin tornadoes, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy grab headlines and the attention of Congress, but the reality is that the number of natural catastrophes resulting in insured-property damage is rising dramatically.

In the 1980s, the average was about 50; in the ’90s, near 100; and for the past decade, 150. In 2011, there were 250, and in 2012, there were 121 storms, 19 floods and earth movements and 41 climate-related events (drought, forest fires and extreme temperatures). Insured losses from natural catastrophes from 1992 to 2012 totaled $420 billion.

Presidentially declared federal disaster assistance rose to records as well — 81 in 2010 and 99 in 2011. The irony in this was best observed by the late Gilbert White when discussing floods, but applicable to most natural events. “Flooding,” he noted, “is an act of God; flood damage is an act of man.” Significant population growth and economic activity in high-risk areas, as well as changing patterns of weather and climate, expose us to more risk and damage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the coastal population from North Carolina to Texas grew by 166 percent since 1960 — to 37.3 million people.

How can we help make our communities prepared pre-event and more resilient post-event? First, communities should assess their resiliency to local natural hazards for critical facilities, public and private infrastructure, public and private supply and energy chain planning and recovery, and vulnerable populations. Such an assessment is likely to encourage local officials to address the risks.

As many businesses do, the appointment of a chief risk officer at the local government level is critical to the assessment phase and identification of alternative strategies. States and local communities should implement stricter building codes to better prepare for local catastrophe risk and emerging climate and weather risk. The Institute for Business and Home Safety evaluates building codes and their enforcement. Some states do an excellent job; others fail in comparison.

Communities should develop a preparedness and response plan with the private sector. Local businesses and national building supply chains are both critical to the disaster recovery as well as to the economy as people return to jobs and the community seeks to get back on its feet.

Congress should insist that the federal government incorporate extreme weather and emerging climate risk into decisions about building and development and into federal insurance programs such as the Federal Crop Insurance Program and the National Flood Insurance Program. Today’s environment may not be tomorrow’s natural-hazard risk.

Congress should require that communities receiving disaster assistance use nature to mitigate risk. The features of the local shoreline and river banks are recreationally enjoyable but can also help us reduce exposure to loss. Local and state officials and Congress should provide tax credits, disaster assistance and/or revolving loans for people who undertake mitigation activities.

Importantly, the federal government and Congress should evaluate the current ad hoc system of disaster assistance to identify financial incentives that would encourage pre-event planning and preparedness. The recurrent process of post-event funding of recovery should be augmented with conditions and incentives for proper rebuilding, the purchase of property prone to repetitive loss and replacement of natural habitats that provide local protection.

Federal agencies such as NOAA and NASA should be well funded for remote and terrestrial sensing and research on weather and climate as both the private and public sectors are dependent on their risk assessment and data.

Nature is a valuable asset. If we respect its temper, we can be better prepared to withstand the devastating impacts of extreme weather and more resilient in recovery.

Frank W. Nutter is president of the Reinsurance Association of America.