Stop Rebuilding Flood zones!

I was at home when hurricane sandy hit. We lived in Norwalk, CT about 5 miles from the coastline. I still remember sitting in the living room with my wife and son, listening to the wind howl outside. We wondered if it would take down the tree that was towering over our house. We wondered when the power would go out. We wondered if our house would hold up. Thankfully, the tree didn’t fall, the power went out for about an hour and our house had no damage. I can’t say the same for the houses just 5 miles away by the shoreline.

The gold coast suffered greatly, to say the least. Many homes were damaged or destroyed by floodwaters. All it took was a walk by the beach and you could see the havoc wreaked. It was devastating. Houses were torn up, flooded, sunk in, and rotting. It was terrible. And it all needed fixing.

At the time I worked for an HVAC company that was hired to repair equipment in many of the homes. After the hurricane hit, the phones wouldn’t stop ringing for weeks. Air Conditioning, Boilers, ducts, you name it. Requests for repairs where flooding in. The week after Sandy hit the company was rumored to have sold $500,000 in HVAC services. For those not familiar with the industry, it’s like selling over 10-15 times more product than you normally do. Sure, the gold coast had money to spend. But our salesmen found it easy to do their jobs for a different reason – flood insurance.

Money became no object for everyone, regardless of income. I can’t say I blame the people affected. They need to rebuild their homes and their lives. The problem, though, is that, with a few exceptions, we allowed people to rebuild their lives in the exact spot where future hurricanes are predicted to hit with ever-increasing fury. This is precisely what I thought about as I watched the news on hurricanes Jose, Irma and Katya making their way to and through the Florida coast.

As I watched the news over the past week, I thought back to my experience with Sandy. Two things came to mind. One is climate change. The other is disaster recovery. Climate change isn’t going away. Therefore, our insistence to rebuild communicates in the same exact spot where they were wiped off the map is, to say the least, unproductive. They’re just going to be destroyed again at the next storm. The changes in weather, rising sea levels and increasing risk of natural disasters are making it less viable to build and re-build coastal communities. Yet, we do it anyway. 

We all love the water. There is an undeniable link between us and the sea. We evolved from ocean creatures. We built entire civilizations using its vast resources. We visit beaches by the tens of thousands every weekend and we vacation in sunny paradises with beautiful ocean views. Putting distance between us and the sea is like tearing off a piece of our very soul. And yet this is precisely what we must do.

No matter how you look at it, letting people rebuild in flood zones is irresponsible. For one, rescue efforts endanger first responders. These are the men and women who have to go in either during or immediately after, disaster strikes and attempt to save as many lives as they can. This will be true no matter what we decide policy-wise, as leaving people to die is just plain inhumane. The second reason is, frankly, cold hard cash.

Most flood insurance isn’t provided by private carriers. When it is, it’s usually in low-risk areas. Since that didn’t give us a clue about where we should and shouldn’t live, we decided the Federal Government should step in. In other words, taxpayers.

Most residential flood policies are sold through the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program was created in 1968, when it was difficult for private companies to insure flood risk at rates homeowners could afford.

After Katrina and Sandy, the program went into debt. Tens of billions upon billions of dollars are spent for rescue and disaster recovery every time there’s a major storm. It’s obvious why. The rebuilding process is a major undertraining. For example we pretty much had to rebuild an entire metropolitan region after Katrina and, in some cases, are still rebuilding parts of it.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t help people put their homes and their lives back together.  We should. It’s the right thing to do. I’m not even suggesting we get rid of flood insurance. Unless you live in the Arizona desert, there will always be SOME risk associated with flooding. What I AM suggesting is that we, as a country, need to look at major re-zoning of residential areas that are located in flood zones. It’s already happened in pockets of flood-effected cities such as NY. But it needs to happen on a larger scale. Entire towns, cities and regions may have to be relocated.

It sounds drastic. But as they say, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results”. The alternative to re-zoning is to wait for the next inevitable disaster to destroy people’s lives and cause an avalanche of physical and financial damage…again. Nature doesn’t care whether we chose to act or wait. And holding back the Atlantic Ocean isn’t really an option.