Hurricane Irene Underscores Need For Better Preparation

Over the past week Mother Nature has done a fine job of reminding those of us on the East Coast that she’s the one that’s really in charge. Between the earthquake that shocked us all, and Hurricane Irene still wreaking havoc as it moves up the east coast, we’re reminded that as much as we plan and prepare, natural disasters will still occur.

As after every major hurricane or drought, people are asking the question: “Was Hurricane Irene caused by climate change?” Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker digs into that question and makes the usual, and correct, conclusion—we can’t blame Hurricane Irene on global warming, but because of the impacts of rising global temperatures, we can expect more events like Hurricane Irene in the future. All we can do is reduce our vulnerability to these types of disasters. 

When Congress returns next week and engages in the inevitable debate about how we pay for disasters, I hope they also debate many of the other issues brought to light by Hurricane Irene:

  • Dams throughout the Northeast are under pressure from the rising flood waters. Residents downstream of Marshfield Dam in Vermont were evacuated, and rumors are cropping up of a dam failure in New York.  With a lack of funding to pay for dam removals or repairs, what’s even more concerning is that many of the people living below the 75,000 dams across the country have no idea they even live in an inundation zone.
  • With over half of the American population living within 50 miles of the coast, it’s inevitable that we’ll experience hurricanes in the future. Whether from storm surge or river flooding because of extreme rainfall, communities should use these flooding experiences to prevent the same damage in the future. As many buildings as possible should be relocated or rebuilt out of the floodplain.

  • Across the Northeast many roads and bridges are being washed away, and time will tell if the damage was the result of stream crossings that were too small. Hopefully they’ll be built bigger to accommodate future storms.
  • Insurance companies seem to be breathing a sigh of relief that most of the damage caused by Hurricane Irene is from flooding, which typically isn’t covered under homeowner’s policies. Unfortunately for us taxpayers, this means that the Federal government will be cutting checks for many of the 900,000 flood insurance policies from North Carolina to Maine. But the worst off will be anyone without flood insurance who will now have to rebuild on their own.

In the grand scope of Hurricane Irene and the billions of dollars in damage and lives lost, issues like building out of the floodplain, notifying the public that they live below dams and behind levees, building big enough stream crossings, and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program may seem small. But these issues have real impacts in the real world.

Doing the right thing and being prepared before a natural disaster occurs can keep people safe and reduce the cost of rebuilding.