The Geography of Risk

Americans have built $3 trillion worth of property in some of the riskiest places on earth, so why do taxpayers have to pay for the hurricane damage to rich coastal communities?

Gilbert M. Gaul The Geography of Risk | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | September 2019 | 24 minutes (4,833 words)

 

It is the peculiar nature of hurricanes that they are both uncommon and utterly predictable. Depending on an island’s geography, it may have a one-in-ten chance of being hit, or a one-in-a-thousand chance. Those are only odds, of course, but they are important because hurricanes are best understood as numbers and probabilities. Some areas are simply more vulnerable than others — Southeast Florida, Puerto Rico, the Florida Panhandle, and the Gulf states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. While you may reassure yourself that you have only a one-in-a-hundred chance of being leveled by a devastating storm in a given year, it’s highly likely that there will be a hurricane in one of these geographies, and someone’s house will be destroyed.

Moreover, the chances appear to be increasing, though not necessarily for the reasons you might imagine. Even accounting for years with lots of hurricanes, including 2004, 2005, 2017, and 2018, the number of hurricanes has held relatively steady for centuries, dating back to the founding of the nation. What has changed is the amount of property at the coast, which amplifies the opportunities for damage and the likelihood that federal taxpayers will spend ever-larger sums to help coastal towns rebuild after hurricanes.

In July 2014, the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit arm of the federal government that helps fund and direct critical research in medicine, engineering, and the social sciences, reported the findings of a yearlong study of coastal risks. Damages from hurricanes and nor’easters have “increased substantially over the past century,” the researchers noted, “largely due to increases in population and development in hazardous coastal areas.” The chief beneficiaries of the land boom at the coast have been the beach towns and property owners who perversely shoulder little of the risk of building in harm’s way yet enjoy most of the wealth, the report added.

Critically, the report, Reducing Coastal Risk on the East and Gulf Coasts, observed that there is “no central leadership, unified vision,” or national strategy to reduce the costs associated with hurricanes. The preponderance of federal funding is paid out after storms, with scant attention to zoning or land-use issues, buyouts, or retreat from vulnerable floodplains. “Over the past century, most coastal management programs have emphasized coastal armoring, while doing little to decrease development in harm’s way,” the report concluded.

A 2018 study by Philip J. Klotzbach, an atmospheric scientist and hurricane expert, associated with Colorado State University, made many of these same points. “Growth in coastal population and regional wealth are the overwhelming drivers of observed increases in hurricane-related damage. As the population and wealth of the United States has increased in coastal locations, it has invariably led to growth in exposure and vulnerability of coastal property along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts,” Klotzbach and several colleagues wrote.

To paraphrase the words of the Clinton-era campaign strategist James Carville, It’s the property, stupid.

* * *

In the last two decades, hurricanes and coastal storms have caused over three-quarters of a trillion dollars in damage at the coast — far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined. That represents a nearly sixfold increase from the prior two decades (1980–1990), as well as most of the hurricane damage in the last century ($725 billion of $1.2 trillion), after adjusting for inflation and population. Alarmingly, the pace of destruction is accelerating, with seventeen of the twenty most expensive hurricanes occurring since 2000. In 2017, Harvey, Maria, and Irma alone accounted for over $300 billion in damage, the single-most expensive hurricane season ever.

Absent a dramatic but unlikely shift in weather patterns, or Americans abandoning the coasts, this sharp spike in hurricane damage is likely to continue, experts say. This is even as the federal government is spending tens of billions on building seawalls, widening beaches, elevating houses, and undertaking an array of other costly efforts to protect coastal property.

The chief beneficiaries of the land boom at the coast have been the beach towns and property owners who perversely shoulder little of the risk of building in harm’s way yet enjoy most of the wealth, the report added.

“There is no way I know to mitigate your way out of the problem, unless you find a way to make carbon go away,” said MIT’s Kerry Emanuel.

That doesn’t seem likely in the fossil fuel–focused Trump administration, which favors coal, oil, and gas over renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar. Greenhouse gases, including long-lasting carbon dioxide, are at historic levels, which may grow even more dramatically by century’s end, current research suggests. More gas translates into higher temperatures, warmer oceans, and increased fuel for hurricanes. Combined with the explosive development at the coast, it is the perfect calculus for disasters.

Hurricanes are unquestionably doing more damage than ever: $163.8 billion for Katrina in 2005 (adjusted for inflation); $35.4 billion for Ike in 2008; $71.5 billion for Sandy in 2012; $126.3 billion for Harvey in 2017; $50.5 billion for Irma in 2017; and $90.9 billion for Maria, also in 2017. Damages are still being tabulated for 2018. But it is likely that Florence and Michael caused at least $50 billion in damage, including devastating losses in poor rural areas, and massive damage to utilities and other public infrastructure.

Again, this isn’t to suggest there haven’t been massive hurricanes in the past. History is replete with examples dating back hundreds of years. Recent evidence detected in archaeological remains and carbon samples depicts ferocious paleo-hurricanes from thousands of years ago. But the key difference between then and now is that the coasts are now littered with expensive beach houses, second homes, boardwalks, and hotels. And there were no government programs or huge taxpayer payouts in the past.

A good example of the past foreshadowing the future is the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. At the time, Miami was a relatively small, new city, unlike today, with its population in the millions and cranes towering over one new development after another. That September, a Category 3 hurricane barreled through downtown, killing about one thousand citizens, toppling houses, and wrecking businesses, while causing about $100 million in damage. Still, as devastating as the Great Miami Hurricane was, it pales in comparison with the damage a similarly powerful storm would cause today — well over $200 billion, according to Philip Klotzbach and other researchers.

“It would be massive,” Klotzbach told me. “It all ties back to population and wealth. Miami is a very desirable place to live, but it’s also a very dangerous place and is overdue for a massive hurricane. That entire area is.”

Meteorologists thought 2017’s Hurricane Irma might make a direct hit on Miami, with winds exceeding 140 miles per hour. However, while crossing Cuba, the storm encountered wind shear, weakened, and then dodged to the west, into the Gulf of Mexico, where it later threatened Tampa, another highly vulnerable city.

The last two major hurricanes to strike southeast Florida — Andrew in 1992 and Wilma in 2005 — also spared Miami. Headline writers at The Miami Herald warned that Andrew was going to be “the Big One” that wrecked the city. But the hurricane wiped out the city of Homestead, about forty miles southeast of Miami, instead causing $25 billion in damage, or about $49 billion in today’s dollars. Yet for all its power, Andrew was a relatively small, compact hurricane that cut a narrow swath of destruction. Wilma, meanwhile, surged across the Florida Keys, causing $25 billion in damage; but it, too, missed the densely developed Miami-Dade metropolitan region. Neither of the storms truly was the Big One. That will be a Category 4 or 5 hurricane that directly strikes Miami, Tampa, or Jacksonville.

Florida, one clever writer recently observed, is a ‘vast harvest of risky building.’

It is only a matter of time. Florida is a long, narrow peninsula bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. The geology of swamps, sinkholes, and porous limestone leaks water at every turn and is highly vulnerable to rising seas. The shallow offshore shelf in the Gulf serves as a launching pad for storms racing up to the Panhandle, such as Ivan (2004) and Michael (2018). Coupled with the massive inflow of people and an unrelenting land boom, Florida is uniquely vulnerable. More than $1 trillion worth of property straddles the coast, including more than a million properties in what FEMA euphemistically calls a “special flood hazard area.” Florida, one clever writer recently observed, is a “vast harvest of risky building.”

It is also a meteorologist’s nightmare, a veritable shooting gallery for hurricanes. The Sunshine State has experienced five of the most powerful hurricanes in history: unnamed Category 4 hurricanes in 1947, 1948, and 1949; 1960’s Hurricane Donna, a Category 4; and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5. Now add Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, which was one of the most powerful hurricanes in the Gulf’s history. The state is low and vulnerable, effectively sinking in places. It is crisscrossed with lagoons, lakes, and estuaries. During king tides and full moons, some residents of Miami are trapped in their houses by rising water. Over time, state regulators have adopted stronger building codes. But those only help so much, and hurricane damage keeps rising. Nor can regulators elevate an entire state or build a wall high or long enough to barricade a coastline more than a thousand miles long. Even if they did, water would likely seep beneath the walls. Widening beaches helps in the short run, but at an increasing cost. Some areas of Florida are running out of sand, and at least one city has explored importing sand from the Bahamas. In 2017, the research arm of the real estate company Zillow estimated that rising seas could swallow upward of a million Florida homes. The houses — and not just the mortgages — would literally be underwater.

Of course, the risks extend well beyond Florida. Some of the fastest-growing areas in the nation are located along the hurricane-prone Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, where the combined population has vaulted from about 16 million in 1940 to nearly 70 million today, with fresh new suburban communities dotting the shorelines and marshes.

“There was a period of time when it was relatively quiet for hurricanes (1960–1990), and a lot of this building happened,” Klotzbach said in an interview with me. “They haven’t lived through a bad hurricane, and have no idea what it’s like.”

* * *

In 2015, FEMA published a list of all the natural disasters in the last two decades that had cost federal taxpayers $500 million or more in emergency aid and recovery efforts. Fourteen of the fifteen disasters were hurricanes (93 percent), underlining the vulnerability of property at the coast and the nation’s escalating hurricane problem. The lone exception was the Midwest floods in 2008.

Another revealing data point was that major hurricanes — those listed as Category 3 to Category 5 — accounted for three-fourths of the $90 billion that the federal agency spent on aid in that period. Bigger, punishing storms like Sandy and Katrina are gouging the heavily developed coastline and consuming larger shares of the agency’s budget.


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The FEMA report didn’t include all the federal costs from hurricanes, only emergency aid. Nor did it cover the 2017–2018 hurricanes, which, combined, will cost the agency additional billions. Including Harvey, Irma, and Maria, hurricanes account for 100 percent of the agency’s most expensive disasters since 2000.

It needs to be acknowledged that government spending is full of kinks, making it hard to know the exact price tag for some disasters. Historical data aren’t always available or reported consistently, with disaster recovery programs scattered across numerous federal agencies. Nevertheless, based on figures that FEMA and other agencies have published, it is safe to say that federal taxpayers have spent at least $500 billion since 1950 responding to hurricanes and coastal storms, including over $350 billion in the last decade alone, a phenomenon that some researchers have likened to a “stealth entitlement” that primarily benefits the wealthy.

In his revealing 1999 study of federal disaster spending, the University of Massachusetts geographer Rutherford H. Platt coined a nice phrase, “the federalization of disasters,” to capture the growing inclination of politicians and bureaucrats to declare every disaster a federal disaster, followed by a gusher of government funds to help pay for the recovery.

“The law since 1950 was always that federal assistance should be secondary to local assistance. It should be a residual level of protection, not the major level of protection,” Platt told me in an interview in 1998. “But clearly the politics have changed.”

But it wasn’t only the politics that shifted; it was the public’s attitudes as well. There was a growing expectation among coastal property owners, mayors, and governors that federal dollars would flow their way after hurricanes to help underwrite their recovery. In the 1970s, FEMA administrators pointed out the distorting effects of this shift in attitudes, noting that “first-dollar coverage” by the government (versus private insurance or homeowners paying for their own repairs) subsidized risky building in floodplains and encouraged owners of coastal property to forego private insurance. In effect, the government was creating a moral hazard by rewarding reckless behavior and then serving as the primary insurer when catastrophe struck.

David A. Moss, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has linked the increased federal role in disaster spending to passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1950, which created a permanent disaster-relief fund and gave the president broad discretionary power to decide when a disaster is eligible for federal dollars. Afterward, Congress and various administrations dramatically expanded disaster aid “in most cases with little debate or controversy,” Moss wrote in his 1999 study, “Courting Disaster.” As a consequence, “Americans increasingly expected protection against an ever-widening array of hazards.”

In effect, the government was creating a moral hazard by rewarding reckless behavior and then serving as the primary insurer when catastrophe struck.

Indeed, federal payouts for hurricane damage have increased virtually in lockstep with coastal development. In the 1950s, when the modern coast was just beginning to develop, the federal government covered about 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. By 2012, the federal share had ballooned to 70 percent on average, and even higher for some storms. That year, after Hurricane Sandy inundated the New Jersey shore, Congress agreed to pay for 100 percent of some damage, including repairing the beaches in front of millionaires’ beach houses. Viewed by decades, the federal share climbed from 3.3 percent in 1927 to 12.8 percent in 1964, to 48 percent in 1972, to 52.5 percent in 1993, according to Moss. And now, 70 percent in the 2000s. “We shouldn’t be doing first-dollar coverage,” Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA during the Obama administration, told me in an interview. “We need to have incentives for states to take more ownership.”

But the politics of federal disaster aid are fraught, making it difficult, if not impossible, for federal officials to question spending decisions or to link funding to zoning and land-use decisions. There is a powerful incentive among coastal politicians to get as much money as possible for their constituents. And, for the most part, the generous approach of Congress is bipartisan, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle watching out for one another.

There are some exceptions, especially in today’s toxic political environment. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, conservative Republicans from Texas, South Carolina, and several other red states voted against emergency disaster funding for New Jersey and New York, both blue states. Both Texas senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, voted against the initial aid package. Cornyn’s spokesman tweeted that the senator believed the multimillion package included “extraneous money for items unrelated to disaster relief.” Cruz declared that “two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” Congress eventually passed a $50.5 million Sandy disaster bill. But in 2017, both Cornyn and Cruz lobbied for tax deductions and massive federal aid for Texas after Hurricane Harvey flooded thousands of homes in their districts.

“A colleague of mine once said there are no conservatives in disasters,” Fugate told me. “You know who the only politician is who never asked me for help? It was Rand Paul’s father, Ron” — the former Texas congressman and libertarian candidate for president. “One thing a politician doesn’t want to do is tell their constituents no. No one wins votes by voting against disaster packages.”

Near the end of his tenure, in 2016, Fugate proposed adding a deductible to the disaster-aid process. Essentially, it would have worked the same way an insurance deductible works. Before a beach town or coastal state could tap into federal disaster dollars, it would have to spend a fixed amount of its own funds, thus ensuring it had “some skin in the game,” Fugate said.

The proposal was backed by fiscal conservatives and environmentalists alike, “which kind of led me to think it might be a good idea,” Fugate explained. “But it took me too long to get through the gates of the Obama administration. And then Trump came in and he didn’t spike it, but it hasn’t been something they’ve gotten to.”

* * *

Congress occasionally tinkers with the rules for disaster aid in an effort to constrain spending. Yet lawmakers have added a startling assortment of programs to rebuild houses; repair roads, bridges, and water treatment plants; clear roads and haul away storm debris; pump sand onto eroding beaches; fix damaged jetties, groins, and seawalls; provide low-interest home and business loans; and distribute checks of up to $33,000 to families to cover short-term rentals, food, clothing, and living expenses; not to mention an array of tax breaks for property losses, depreciation, and mortgage interest for second homes — all of which help inflate the value of coastal real estate and encourage rebuilding in the wake of damaging storms.

New Jersey officials used about $2 billion of the federal aid they got after Sandy to fund a massive rebuilding effort at the shore. The goal was to get the state back in business as quickly as possible. Virtually overnight, the Christie administration transformed the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs into a housing agency, awarding grants of up to $150,000 to owners of flood-damaged homes. The program was hampered by staff turnover, delays, and fraud. Eligibility rules seemed to shift every few weeks, leading some homeowners to complain that they needed an MBA to wade through the mountains of paperwork. Local construction and zoning offices were also overwhelmed and often provided contradictory advice.

For months, no one seemed to know how many feet that homeowners should elevate their houses to get above the flood risk. The federal flood maps were outdated, and different agencies gave different advice. “I’d walk into one office and they’d tell me one thing, and I’d walk into the office next door and they would tell me something completely different,” said Chuck Griffin, a seventy-year-old retiree. His modest Mystic Island bungalow in Ocean County was flooded with six feet of water. Griffin gutted it and started repairs himself but ran out of money and hope. He waited years for help, camping out in his cold, dark, empty bungalow for several weeks. Finally, with the help of a nonprofit, he qualified for state help. And in fall 2017, he moved into a new modular house on the same lot, elevated ten feet above sea level. It was a slog, but at least he was finally home, he said.

Governor Christie talked about building back smarter and stronger. But it was never clear what that meant, because other than generalities, the administration never explained what it wanted the state’s coast to look like in an age of rising water and more ferocious storms. Most decisions involving land use and zoning were still left to the beach towns.

Remarkably, no one in the federal government questioned the governor’s approach, let alone asked why the state was effectively bribing its citizens to build back in harm’s way.

“I think Governor Christie saw planning as a delay to building back,” said John A. Miller, an engineer and floodplain manager who testified and wrote about the state’s recovery plan. “There was never any plan or a vision. It was a very, very short-term vision, and pretty much just called for putting things back so the beach resorts could be up and running again. We’re not going to recognize sea level. God forbid we do any long-term planning. The farther out the recovery got, the less interested the governor seemed.”

By 2015–2016, the state’s newspapers were reporting that Christie was out of the state campaigning more than he was in it. By then, the governor was running for president, and among many claims, he touted how he had saved the state from Hurricane Sandy. “When the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild the state, which is what I’ve done,” he told fans along the campaign trail.

One thing Christie was good at was tapping federal disaster dollars to fund a resettlement program in which homeowners received $10,000 cash grants to return to their damaged homes. The only requirement was that they had to promise to remain there for three years. There were no income guidelines; rich and poor alike were eligible. At least some of those who collected checks lived out of state. Remarkably, no one in the federal government questioned the governor’s approach, let alone asked why the state was effectively bribing its citizens to build back in harm’s way.

* * *

There is a kind of permissive elegance to disaster relief that filters through government agencies, programs, and rules. Requests for federal aid begin at the state level and then are forwarded to FEMA, which makes a recommendation to the president. In theory, a disaster is supposed to exceed a state’s financial ability to respond. But the threshold used to define financial ability is, to put it mildly, generous. For decades, FEMA used a figure of $1 per capita for each of a state’s citizens. So, if New Jersey had seven million residents, the state had to document just $7 million worth of damage to trigger a federal disaster declaration and access recovery dollars. Surprisingly, the $1 trigger wasn’t adjusted for inflation for years. As a result, even modest coastal storms qualified for federal aid. FEMA was effectively marking on a curve, so everyone got an A or a B. Meanwhile, final decisions in the Oval Office were “often influenced by congressional and media attention,” Rutherford Platt said, further undermining the process.

With such a low bar, the number of federal disaster declarations climbed steadily, with 1,300 federal disasters declared in the last three decades alone. The loosening of eligibility standards prompted the normally cautious Congressional Research Service to declare the aid packages an entitlement. “As long as victims (public or individuals) meet eligibility requirements, they are entitled to disaster relief assistance. While this ensures that relief is provided to all victims (regardless of economic need) it may be a potentially expensive arrangement,” the researchers noted in a 1998 study.

There are “way too many federal declarations, and way too many of them are not really beyond the capability of state and local government to handle,” said Larry Larson, the former director of the national Association of State Floodplain Managers, and one of the nation’s more thoughtful observers of government-disaster policies.

With such a low bar, the number of federal disaster declarations climbed steadily, with 1,300 federal disasters declared in the last three decades alone.

To make sure that copious funds are available for their states, members of Congress have resorted to a form of budgetary chicanery, using emergency supplemental appropriations to fund disasters instead of setting an annual bud get for disaster spending. As a result, the unchecked spending directly adds to the nation’s cascading deficit, now about $1 trillion annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

By my count, Congress has approved seventeen separate supplemental appropriations from 2003 to 2018, totaling $210 billion. That includes $120 billion for the 2017 hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida. The growing reliance on off-budget maneuvers raises a variety of issues, the Congressional Research Service observed in a 2010 study. For one, lawmakers are able to move funding streams through Congress on an expedited basis with minimal debate. For another, they can exceed discretionary spending limits designed to reduce the federal deficit. The supplemental allocations are also hard to track, allowing states to use funds for projects that appear far removed from the disaster. Following Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey officials were criticized for using disaster dollars to build low-income housing and fund repairs at an apartment complex over fifty miles from the coast.

* * *

By law, if not always in practice, beach towns and coastal communities are supposed to contribute toward their own recoveries. The amounts vary by program but can be substantial. For example, in 1988, Congress stipulated that local governments should pay a quarter of the cost of repairing government buildings, parks, roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure damaged in storms, with FEMA covering the other 75 percent.

But coastal lawmakers often step in after disasters to help lower or eliminate the required local payments. A 2010 study by the Congressional Research Service found 222 instances since 1986 in which Congress, FEMA, or the president either reduced the local share or expanded the time period in which coastal communities were eligible to collect federal disaster aid, resulting in higher federal spending. Federal waivers eliminating any local contribution at all have also become more common, the researchers reported, especially after large storms such as Katrina and Sandy.

The most popular target for waivers is FEMA’s Public Assistance program, by far the largest and most expensive in the government’s cupboard of disaster-relief programs. Since 2000, FEMA has awarded more than $45 billion in grants to beach towns and coastal states to scoop sand off high- ways, repair damaged water lines, rebuild town halls, and pay overtime for police, among an array of eligible expenses, federal records show. Local shore towns were supposed to pay a quarter of the costs. But in dozens of cases involving Texas, Louisiana, and New Jersey, FEMA agreed to cover 100 percent of the repairs.

In another wrinkle, FEMA allows states to use federal dollars to cover their required “local” contributions, thus defeating the purpose of the cost-share. New Jersey used $54.5 million from FEMA to cover its required share while rebuilding a damaged highway in Ocean County. It used another $25 million to cover its share for three other projects, records show.

Altogether, New Jersey received $1.2 billion to cart away debris following Hurricane Sandy. It got $1.6 billion for police and emergency workers, $1.8 billion to repair public buildings, and $2.5 billion to fix broken utilities. In 2012, Governor Christie asked FEMA to cover 100 percent of the cost.

I reviewed more than four thousand Sandy Public Assistance grants and found more than a few surprises. For example, FEMA spent $75 million to repair boardwalks for beach resorts in Belmar, Atlantic City, and elsewhere; $32 million to fix a seawall damaged by the storm; and over $100 million for broken lifeguard stands, gazebos, lampposts, garbage cans, restrooms, and marinas. It paid tens of millions to buy new cars and replace vehicles damaged by saltwater, and to patch sand dunes and replace wooden crossovers and dune fences. It also replaced docks and bulkheads, traffic signals, benches, and cameras. FEMA allocated $204,000 to repair a hockey rink in Monmouth County and $194,000 for a baseball field in Bergen County, a hundred miles from the coast; it awarded $168,000 for an ice house in Monmouth County. It also paid to fix tennis courts, streetlights, rowing clubs, and restaurants. It even paid for spoiled food.

To make sure that copious funds are available for their states, members of Congress have resorted to a form of budgetary chicanery, using emergency supplemental appropriations to fund disasters instead of setting an annual bud get for disaster spending.

Applying for Public Assistance money has become an industry unto itself, requiring full-time attention and specialized help. “The paperwork is unbelievable,” groused the Long Beach Township mayor Joe Mancini. “You have to make sure you hit every box. If you don’t, they’ll say you don’t qualify.”

For that reason, Mancini and many other coastal mayors hire consultants to wade through the paperwork and maximize FEMA payments. Some prominent consultants are former FEMA managers and administrators. And if for some reason FEMA still says no, the towns can always turn to their congressional representatives to lobby agency officials.

It must work. Long Beach Township has received over $13 million in Sandy Public Assistance grants to date, with millions more expected. It received $2.5 million for police and emergency workers, $80,000 for a modular trailer, $110,290 to replace damaged dune fencing, $5,000 for benches, $390,000 to repair streets, $165,000 for a comfort station, $67,000 for street signs, and $3 million to remove debris. It still has open claims for trash containers, fire hydrants, a tennis court, a gazebo, and restrooms. In most cases, federal taxpayers are paying 100 percent of the cost, township records show.

“The program exists. We’d be fools not to take advantage of it,” the mayor told me.

Brock Long, Fugate’s replacement as FEMA director in the Trump administration, suggested in 2017 that a disaster deductible or some other approach was needed to reduce federal disaster spending. “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward,” he told Insurance Journal. “We have to find ways to comprehensively become more resilient.”

But as of this writing, the deductible remains an idea, not a reality, and federal spending keeps rising. Long, who became mired in an ethical quandary involving his use of government automobiles for personal use, announced in February 2019 that he was leaving his federal post.           Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office warned in a 2016 working paper, “Damage from hurricanes is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades because of the effects of climate change and coastal development. In turn, potential requests for federal relief and recovery efforts will increase as well.”

***

Gilbert M. Gaul twice won the Pulitzer Prize and has been short-listed for the Pulitzer four other times. For more than thirty-five years, he worked as an investigative journalist for The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers. He is the author of three previous books and lives in New Jersey.

Excerpted from The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of
America’s Coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2019 by Gilbert M. Gaul. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath