The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Managing Risk, or Prolonging Addiction?

Posted by | March 25, 2014

(c) Isaac Cordal

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 3/30/2014.

Even though I work for the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, a coastal research and education center, I’d never thought too deeply about flood insurance – that is, until a crack addict knocked on the door of my home one Saturday night this winter.

A young, tattooed man from the house across the street, wearing a tank top in 20-degree weather and unsteady on his feet, asked politely to borrow “a teaspoon and some baking soda.” I figured he wasn’t baking a cake and laughingly demurred to loan out our silverware. The boy left disappointed, but seemingly at peace, with my reluctance.

I shut the door. And then, for the first time since we’d moved to Maine, I locked it (and my car). Mostly, I felt sorry for the kid. I didn’t want to enable his drug use, but neither did I want to see him again.

Only the next morning, while reading about rising federal flood insurance premiums in the Sunday paper, did I realize that locking the doors was an example of “risk management,” but not “risk reduction.” While I may have thought I was protecting my family, I was doing nothing to address the underlying problem.

As my favorite union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, puts it: “Sea level is rising and increasing the risk of destructive flooding events ... At the same time, increasing coastal development and a growing population are putting more people and more property in harm’s way. This risky pattern of development is being reinforced by the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program, which sets artificially low insurance rates that do not reflect the true risks to coastal properties.”

Due in large part to the past decade’s hurricane quartet of Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and Sandy, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is looking at a $30 billion deficit. For the program to get above water again and meet future disasters, the government has few options but to raise rates to match the true risks to coastal property. And so a 2012 overhaul of the NFIP, the Biggert-Waters Act, was set to increase flood insurance premiums by 18-25% annually. Flood insurance revenues were finally going to rise faster than our seas… until Congress and the president slowed down the reforms last week, spurred by public outrage.

On the one hand, I can sympathize with coastal homeowners, particularly the many friends and neighbors the Reserve has on Drakes Island here in Wells. More than 30 percent of the property tax revenues to our town come from the beachfront. Families have been here for generations and have weathered all manner of storms and have had to rebuild far less often than federal flood insurance holders in the Gulf states. While we have families and property at the high water line, let’s protect and insure them.

But does this just wash the problem into the future? Ultimately, the sea is rising. The newly updated FEMA flood maps, already the subject of debate in York County for using a Pacific Coast wave model, suffer from a greater defect: they do not take into account sea level rise. This is ludicrous: most scientific predictions push high tide three feet higher by the end of this century, unless global warming is reversed.*

For many of our communities, the last time FEMA mapped the flood zones was 30-40 years ago. If the maps don’t forecast 30-40 years into the future, especially in this century, how useful can they be in determining appropriate flood insurance rates? Flood-safe areas of New York City, per the old FEMA maps, were inundated in Hurricane Sandy, as pointed out recently by the National Resources Defense Council.

I believe that, as a society, we are addicted to the benefits of fossil fuels, even as we pass on their harms, including rising seas, to future generations. Meanwhile, our budgets are dependent on the lucrative tax base we have encouraged along our beaches.

Drug abuse can be fought with prevention, treatment and prosecution. The remedies to our addiction on cheap flood insurance are out there, too.

My response to an addict knocking on my family’s door was to lock the door and go back to dinner. That approach has worked out fine, so far.

What will be the response of our coastal communities when the ocean comes knocking?

 

* I should add that the threat is not just from the seaward side. Extreme precipitation events are increasing in New England. One-hundred-year floods now occur more frequently than their name suggests, and they are exacerbated by the extensive development on our coastal plain and riverside areas in the past hundred years. Any property near water is under greater threat.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, high water and low. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

← View all Blog Posts