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Image: A summary infographic showing hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA's 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook.
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1st, and all those who were hoping to be spared extra worry, inconvenience, and expense will most likely be disappointed. As if the year 2020 is not bad enough already, the hurricane season is likely to add to our troubles. As early predictions roll in, it appears that this year will be worse than average; with 14-18 named tropical storms deemed likely. Of those, seven to nine are expected to become hurricanes, and of those hurricanes, four to five are likely to become major storms. The chances that a major hurricane will make landfall in the US is deemed to be 69%- well above the threat level that existed at this time last year. In short, an above-average hurricane season is approaching, during a year when a global pandemic is already making life very difficult.
In the event of a major hurricane, the current pandemic situation will make every step that much harder. Evacuation, sheltering with others in close quarters, rescue operations, hospitalization for injuries, obtaining food, water and clothing, and the fact that so many families are already on the brink of financial ruin- all these factors will greatly complicate the response to a major natural disaster. In addition to these issues, it may be that funding from FEMA, or assistance from the National Guard, the military, or the Army Corps of Engineers will be complicated by the fact that these resources are already stretched to the breaking point in response to pandemic issues. No year is a ‘good’ year to suffer through a hurricane, but the year 2020 has sapped resources and funding like no other in the past century.
Because of the current pandemic and other unique challenges that will continue to impact our lives this summer, experts are urging everyone who lives in a potential hurricane zone to work on preparing a plan now, well before the plan is needed. Without preparation, coastal residents are risking disaster more dire than they have ever dreamed possible. Many of the very people who are most susceptible to COVID-19 are also very vulnerable to the hazards presented by a hurricane: nursing home residents, indigent or homeless persons, and immobile, house-bound individuals are all at extreme risk during any type of natural disaster. And even if these individuals can be safely evacuated, they are then likely to be housed in cramped and crowded quarters- an environment that is conducive to the rapid spread the COVID-19 virus.
Even now, before the official start of the hurricane season; emergency funds, non-profit agencies, and local relief efforts are already stretched to the snapping point. Many millions of people have lost their jobs, businesses, and shelter. State and Federal agencies are already unable to cope with the unprecedented level of need: for emergency housing assistance, food stamps, health care needs, child care options, and many other services that have never before been under this type of severe pressure. Adding a major hurricane disaster response to this already precarious social services safety net may collapse the entire system. For this reason, experts are issuing a stark warning as the 2020 hurricane season approaches: Be Prepared!
Photo: AUGUSTA, Ga. – Divers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District plunge into the Savannah River to inspect the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, May 13, 2014. This was the first dive inspection performed on the aging structure since 1999. The divers assessed continuing erosion under the riverside lock wall, which has exposed supporting timber piles making them vulnerable to water damage and decay. USACE photo by Scott Hyatt.
During the 1950’s and 60’s the U.S. enjoyed a period of massive federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Bridges, roads, railways, and other transportation and energy-related systems were built or improved, and as a side benefit this investment created tens of thousands of jobs. The large expenditures on infrastructure, although difficult at the time, led to the very prosperous and economically stable decades that followed. In large part, this is because businesses were able to move goods and services via the best transportation system on the planet, and also because so many citizens had well-paying jobs connected to the public projects. The forward-thinking government that made the difficult appropriations necessary to build the infrastructure of this country also built the largest economy in the world.
Fast-forward many decades, and the U.S. economy is still coasting on those long-ago investments and sacrifices. During the 1960’s, which was the heyday of investment in infrastructure, the amount allocated from federal grants for infrastructural projects was close to 6% of the U.S. GDP. Today this investment rate hovers at around 3% of GDP. This means that while the demands upon our transportation and energy grid infrastructure has vastly increased, spending on these systems has been cut in half. Spending on infrastructure, while extremely critical to the nation and to the economy, is just not exciting or rewarding to the careers of the Congresspeople and Senators who must work to appropriate the funds. As Congress has grown ever more divided and partisan, the boring and un-newsworthy infrastructure investment has languished.
This neglect is not only a figurative ticking time bomb for the economy, but is also a literal life-and-death matter for many U.S. citizens who drive across crumbling bridges, transport goods through declining underwater tunnels, and live downstream from aging dams. While all of these issues are critically important, it is the aging dam issue that we will consider today.
Dams have been in use in the U.S. since the very first human inhabitants arrived. Native Americans made use of natural beaver dams to aid with agriculture, and soon began to construct their own. Dams have been used to power mills for thousands of years, and in the late 1800’s the first hydroelectric dams went into service in England and the U.S., very soon after humans learned to harness electricity. There was a rush to build hydroelectric dams, and this new method of energy production seemed limitless and thrilling. Funds were allocated enthusiastically for this novel and hugely useful new technology. Perhaps the culmination of this great dam-building age was the breathtaking feat of engineering called the Hoover Dam.
Today, however, we take all these elderly dams for granted. In the U.S. today, there are countless small dams that have been blocking flowing water for over a century. One hundred (or more) years of water flowing over packed earth, fitted stone, or even the strongest concrete structure can inflict a lot of damage. The great enthusiasm for building the newfangled hydroelectric projects gave way to a much more subdued interest in maintaining the dams. Now, the U.S. faces a looming crisis of decrepit dams that may lack the integrity to withstand the increased pressures that are arising from climate change.
Those responsible for inspecting the nation’s dams have been sounding the alarm for decades, only to be ignored. However, as climate change brings heavier and more frequent storms, community leaders have been forced to pay attention to the floods that occur with ever-increasing frequency. Today it has become so common for dams to be breached during storms that many homeowners are forced to invest heavily in flood mitigation measures such as extensive landscaping, flood barriers, fortified sump pumps, and even elevation of the entire structure. But even this is not the worst of the matter. Many people who live downstream from crumbling dams have much more to fear than flooded basements and blocked roadways. If a dam fails suddenly, all those below the dam are at extreme risk of losing their very lives!
Image: Miami tidal flooding, October 13, 2016.
The city of Miami-Dade has now joined its close neighbor, Miami Beach, in declaring a climate change state of emergency. In recent years, a dramatic increase in the frequency and duration of ‘sunny day floods’ has meant that flooding can appear suddenly, without warning, and in the absence of storms or king tides. On any given day, it is possible for residents to encounter flooded areas that can cause hazards for transportation, damage buildings and homes, or even completely block motorways. Because of this new and gathering threat, activists have pressured local government to officially declare a state of emergency in order to make funds available to combat the threat.
The city of Miami has set aside a fund of $192 million to fight the effects of climate change, but this amount is not nearly enough to implement the drastic solutions that will be necessary to protect this highly vulnerable city. As dire as the situation may be in Miami, the city of Miami Beach is facing an even greater threat, because Miami Beach is built upon an artificial foundation comprised mostly of sand. Together, the cities of Miami and Miami Beach will need hundreds of millions of dollars in order to survive through the end of this century. For this reason, both municipalities are requesting matching funds from State and Federal coffers in order to supplement the funds that have already been earmarked for this challenge. The future looks uncertain for the entire Florida peninsula unless massive flood mitigation projects can be implemented in a timely manner.
Luckily, new technologies have become available that can greatly help with the fight against climate change. In particular, drones have proven their usefulness in many ways. Drones have been deployed regularly to monitor king tides and to detect the frequent ‘sunny day floods’ that pop up in various parts of the city. Drones can be extremely useful when counting wildlife populations-without disturbing the animals, detecting areas of erosion or tidal incursion along the coastline- without putting human observers at risk, and for surveying remote and inhospitable areas- without expensive manpower and equipment. Underwater drones can collect sediment samples, survey conditions on the sea floor, and record measurements of currents and wave action. This single advancement has made an enormous contribution to the fight against climate-related devastation.
In addition to the use of drones, the city of Miami employs many other defenses in its fight against the sea. One solution is to design and implement urban reservoirs throughout the city. These reservoirs are intended to capture and absorb water during flood, rather than to allow the water to impede into areas of human habitation or into valuable business zones. Another recent development is the use of special one-way anti-tidal valves that prevent sea water from entering urban zones while still allowing fresh floodwater to drain out through the valves.
One hopeful development is political rather than technological. The current mayor of Miami-Dade, Francis Suarez, believes that the threat posed by climate change has evolved into a non-partisan issue that is shared by all, regardless of political affiliation. Mayor Suarez, a Republican, says, "I think why people are unifying on the partisan landscape is we're focusing on the issues that we see, we see the flooding, we see the wildfires in California, we see the mega hurricanes like Dorian which put the Bahamas under 20 feet of water and killed thousands of people, so we're dealing with the climatic events that we see, we can't ignore them," As studies indicate that every dollar spent on prevention saves at least seven dollars of post-flooding clean-up, it makes sense that people from every political viewpoint should unite in this battle to save Miami from the results of climate change.
PHOTO: New Orleans, LA, March 8, 2006 – The level of flooding from Hurricane Katrina is evident by the yellow water line across the awning and pillars of this house in Gentilly. The homeowner had coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and was eligible for the Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) benefit since he lived in a high risk area and was elevating his home above the base flood elevation in compliance with the community's floodplain ordinance. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA
Property owners who need flood insurance have just been handed a one-year reprieve that comes with good news and bad news. The good news is that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) will remain unchanged for one more year, giving those who need this insurance protection a chance to enjoy a little more time with relatively affordable premiums. This is not to say that flood insurance is currently inexpensive; it most certainly is not cheap! But for many, the new rates that will kick in a year from now will make the current premiums seem very economical by comparison.
The projected changes to the NFIP have been years in the making. The program is seriously in debt to the Treasury due to years of massive storms that have ‘broken the bank'. Perhaps the best known disaster, the one that started the slide into insolvency, was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The insurance payouts from that storm left huge deficits in the NFIP that have never been recouped. Following closely on Katrina were many other outsized storms that hit the insurance program harder and harder, like waves battering the shore during a hurricane.
What's left of the NFIP is a ragged remnant that can not withstand much more- and this at a time when it is a certainty that much more is coming. As climate change and sea level rise produce more and stronger hurricanes, storm surges, and tidal flooding, the NFIP is not only broke, but deeply in debt. There is no disagreement about the currently dire state of the NFIP, but there is also no discussion of scrapping the program entirely. This is because the elimination of the NFIP would produce a huge and very negative impact on the nation's economy. Nevertheless, it is generally understood that the program stands in need of a major overhaul if it is to remain viable.
The NFIP is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and is an important safeguard for millions of people in flood-prone areas. Created by Congress in the year 1968, the NFIP was intended to offer financial protection for property owners, many of whom cannot access flood insurance from private insurers. Now that the program is teetering on the brink of complete collapse, FEMA has been working on plans to reform the program in order to improve its sustainability. These plans have been controversial, to say the least.
In the past, premiums and flood risk ratings have been based on data from the 1970's, which means that this outdated risk assessment has not kept up with significant changes to climate, flood zones, and other risk factors. Now FEMA is attempting to draw up new and updated criteria for determining flood risk, one that is based on years of experience, and is meant to be much more accurate for today's conditions. The new data-driven plan is called Risk Rating 2.0, and it is the implementation of this plan that has now been pushed back by one year.
The main problem with immediate implementation of the new plan appears to be that this happens to be an election year. While some property owners will find that their premiums will remain stable or even decrease, many, many more people will find that their rates will increase. In fact, the new risk assessments will mean financial strain for the vast majority of policy holders, and financial disaster for more than a few. When the new Risk Rating 2.0 plan was unveiled, there was widespread shock and dismay as the financial implications for policy holders became clear. It seems that FEMA had been working on Risk Rating 2.0 without releasing any information about what it might contain, and now that policy holders have had a chance to learn about what is in store they have reacted with outrage and dismay. Calls to congressional representatives in coastal districts have been flooding in, and worried pols have opted to kick the can down the road until after the elections. For now, the NFIP will continue as usual with the old premium rates, but for next year … there are ominous dark clouds gathering on the horizon.
Flood Panel LLC accepts
all major credit cards.