Before any “lessons learned” speechifying, we should first pray for those who lost their lives and family members and homes and livelihoods to the nearly “biblical storms” Harvey and Irma. For those still in shelters and still being rescued, we wish them Godspeed.
There are so many lessons from these two storms. Where to begin? Let’s begin with a word: “resilient.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “resilient” as: (a) “capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; and, (b) tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Clearly, as we look at our flooded and battered communities in Texas, Florida and South Carolina, we see that they are not meeting this definition.
As individuals and societies, we strive, as we should, to be as resilient as we can be. Why? Because if we are not resilient in ourselves, our properties, our neighborhoods and our societies, we simply put our misfortunes on our neighbors, involuntarily, whether they can handle those burdens or not. Recall the story of the “Three Little Pigs” that we all learned as children. The two silly pig brothers who danced and sang and built their houses of straw and sticks ended up depending on the brother who built his house of bricks to save them from the huffing and puffing of the big, bad wolf. The wind-blowing wolf is certainly an apt analog for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
What makes us and our societies resilient? There are several important aspects of lack of resiliency that Harvey and Irma have starkly revealed. The majority of homeowners with flood damages in Texas and Florida in the recent storms did not have flood insurance. Most all of these people owned cars, and, because of state laws, they all had automobile casualty insurance. Driving without insurance would be unlawful, yet their homes, where the majority of their net worth was invested, were without coverage. Whatever their homes were actually made of, they were financial “sticks and straw,” without flood insurance. Flood insurance is a critical component of resilience for the individual and for society at large, which will now direct billions of its tax dollars for FEMA relief. In the case of most homeowners who were wiped out by these storms, they could have afforded flood insurance but opted not to have it.
Insurance is one component of resilience, but it is not the only factor. Let’s talk about personal responsibility. There are many relatively minor and cost-effective measures that homeowners in floody areas can take, short of raising their homes on stilts. Flood prevention investments can include: backflow preventers, storm shutters, removable flood barriers, raising electrical outlets, raising HVAC equipment off the ground, minor regrading and installing salt-tolerant vegetation. The list could go on and on.
Why don’t most homeowners in the vulnerable coastal areas make these investments? One reason is that they lack comprehensive, flood-risk-vulnerability information about their own properties. The FEMA flood maps’ “binary” approach – in or out of the 100-year flood zone – has not been effective in communicating all of the various flood risks to which homeowners are subject. For example, FEMA flood maps do not include tidal flooding risks, NOAA maximum-storm-surge risks (which may be much greater in flood height) and heavy rainfall/high groundwater risks. This is why my company, Coastal Risk Consulting, developed its online, comprehensive flood risk assessments at www.floodscores.com – to help coastal residents get climate-ready and storm-safe.
Once homeowners and their neighbors truly understand their flood risks from the “bottom up,” then, and only then, will they be able to effectively mitigate their personal risks and advocate with their town, county, state and federal representatives regarding the “top down” resiliency efforts — and appropriation of funds needed to make public infrastructure climate-ready and storm-safe. Both individual and government investments in resilience are required to make us and our communities “resilient,” especially in light of increasingly intense storms.
The next resiliency challenge for the owners of properties damaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is whether and how to rebuild to become more flood-resistant in the face of severe weather to come. Many motivational speakers have orated: “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity.” Whether this is linguistically correct or not, it makes a good point. The multiple billions of dollars of property damages wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma provides society with, perhaps, a generational opportunity: How should the hundreds of damaged communities rebuild themselves? Will they rebuild in the same locations and at the same elevations and with the same “lack of flood preventions”?
In “Three Little Pigs” parlance, will they rebuild houses of sticks and straw or will they build “brick” houses that can withstand the floods and winds brought on by the next set of storms? Will local, state and federal governments say “enough is enough?” Will our elected representatives work with our visionary architects and engineers to rapidly change building codes and land use and zoning laws, to begin to make our communities more resilient?
As much as I hope for such a result, I would not, however, bet the house and the dog that our politicians will say what everyone knows they should say, namely, “Enough is enough.”