New York Daily News
By Steve Bellone & Christine Todd Whitman
October 29, 2017
This record-setting hurricane season has wrought heartbreaking havoc on coastal communities across the country. With 10 hurricanes in 10 weeks this summer alone — including two reaching Category 5 — we are witnessing a growing frequency and intensity of significant storm events. Each storm leaves unimaginable damage in its path, as our fellow Americans in Houston and Puerto Rico have witnessed firsthand.
Many times now, Americans have watched a familiar cycle unfold — a storm strikes, assistance is provided, damage is assessed, and recovery funding is debated and ultimately approved to begin a rebuilding process. We then hold our collective breaths and hope that an even more devastating storm does not come along.
This cycle has played out over and over again, costing American taxpayers more than $200 billion to help fund recovery efforts from hurricanes over the past 15 years. As climate change intensifies storms and raises sea levels, we can expect even greater damage to our region’s coastal communities in the future, and thus greater need to invest in mitigation measures.
In the end, this should concern all Americans. The fact is that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly 40% of the population of the United States lives in coastal communities. Over the next 30 years, the number of people living in places at risk of flooding from an extreme storm in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region is likely to double from 1 million to 2 million while 59% of the region’s energy capacity is in areas that will be prone to flooding, as will all of our shipping ports and four of our major airports. Climate change is not just an environmental issue — it is an economic one.
The question must be asked: Are we investing wisely to plan for and withstand the next storm?
In the New York City region, which was devastated by Superstorm Sandy nearly five years ago, this vicious cycle is being scrutinized. The highly respected Regional Plan Association has released a study that recommends smart new approaches to deal with the reality of climate change.
First, the RPA calls for the establishment of a Regional Coastal Commission, a new body that will work proactively across municipal and state boundaries to “reduce the risks posed and expenses incurred by coastal flooding from storm surge, sea-level rise and heavy precipitation in our region’s coastal communities.”
Such a commission would not impede local decision-making authority of municipalities. Rather, it would provide information and guidance for localities based on science to best adapt to the worsening impacts of climate change. These projects would save money, save lives, and help our region adjust to the next storm. We need to start planning and building more projects today — and fast.
Secondly, we need a fiscally responsible way to pay for this over the long term. One way to achieve this would be to launch an adaptation trust fund in each state. This innovative approach would create a sustainable funding mechanism, built and replenished by small surcharges on casualty and property insurance premiums, that would be directly used, or bonded against, to invest in the storm resiliency projects that many of our coastal communities so desperately need.
With this dedicated source of capital established, government would have the additional resources necessary to launch infrastructure projects, put people to work and, most importantly, minimize the risk that too many of our coastal communities face from storms and flooding.
Without it, we will forever be in a reactionary process: dependent on catastrophic storms that would result in the political will to infuse new funding to pay for adaption. That is, of course, if federal support is forthcoming in the future.
How we plan for this new reality should not be a partisan issue. As a former Republican governor of New Jersey and current Democratic Suffolk County executive on Long Island, we have seen the devastation of powerful storms first hand. We know how important this issue is for the places we call home.
We may have largely recovered from Sandy, but we have only begun to think about what the future should look like. It is time to implement a more coordinated, proactive and sensible approach, to take a longer-term view.
Bellone is Suffolk County executive. Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey.