After the Storm
Ian’s trifecta of wind, rain, and storm surge wiped out communities and caused unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath of the superstorm, victims will reconstruct their lives. But should they rebuild their homes?
Hurricane Ian rendered us speechless. With heavy hearts, we send thoughts, prayers, and donations to our friends and colleagues in Florida, hoping that our support will, in some small way, ease their inconceivable suffering.
Nothing can be written or said to assuage the pain that the superstorm—one of the worst weather events in U.S. history—has inflicted, resulting in somewhere between $30-60 billion in damages.
While it’s impossible to undo the damage, perhaps we can glean some hard-learned lessons so that we are better prepared for similar events in the future—downscaling them from catastrophes to occurrences.
Hurricanes are an indisputable weather reality, and the link between superstorms and climate change is complex. Science shows that above-average sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are causing more frequent and intense storms and that these warmer waters are augmenting the energy and moisture levels of hurricanes.
As the atmosphere heats up, more water vapor is retained in the air, causing a higher frequency of extreme precipitation. The eastern part of the country is becoming all too familiar with this scenario—the region is experiencing 40% more precipitation today than 60 years ago.
Additionally, rising sea levels are strengthening storm surges and preventing floodwater from draining effectively. In fact, storm surges during hurricanes are often several feet higher than they were decades ago due to climate change, resulting in far more flooding and destruction.
Given that category 4 and 5 hurricanes are occurring more frequently, it would make sense to plan accordingly.
Unfortunately, Florida’s population explosion over the past two decades has resulted in unchecked urban sprawl with rambling swaths of impermeable surfaces, making the entire state, and especially coastal areas, exceptionally vulnerable to catastrophic flooding during superstorms.
Developer-friendly laws, risky dredge-and-fill development practices, and a decisive lack of regulation and enforcement has kept home prices low and demand high. But, in the process, developers have paved over crucial swamps, shoals, mangroves, and wetlands that were once able to absorb excess floodwater during storms.
Now, floodwater is channeled into artificial canals, waterways, and basins. While this has created high-priced faux waterfront property, this man-made infrastructure has proven to be an inadequate replacement for crucial flood-absorbing ecosystems, leaving most existing homes woefully unprepared when facing a superstorm.
According to Green Builder Media’s Resilient Housing Design Guide, resilient homes utilize durable building envelope materials, like Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) or Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), and have features like tie-down or anchor systems, inlets, pilings, structural bracing, raised foundations, backup energy systems, and access to fresh, potable water in an emergency. But only a very small percentage of homes in the U.S. actually boast these features.
To make matters worse, in some areas of the country, unsustainable land use strategies and myopic planning decisions have allowed development in flood-prone areas, enabling extreme weather events to quickly turn from annoyances into disasters.
The status quo of policies and practices that permit irresponsible building—and rebuilding—in high-risk areas, as advocated by the development and building industry, is ultimately impoverishing homeowners, communities, and municipalities throughout the nation, threatening to bankrupt the very programs that have been implemented to provide protection.
To learn more about how you can prepare your home for the impending floods, download Green Builder Media’s free e-book, Resilient Housing Design Guide
“If the risk from wildfires, flooding, storms, or hail is increasing, then the only sustainable option we have is to adjust our risk prices accordingly,” admits Ernst Rauch, reinsurance firm Munich Re’s chief climatologist. “Affordability is so critical [because] some people on low and average incomes in some regions will no longer be able to buy insurance,” he asserts.
According to Green Builder Media’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Power, “It's no longer prudent to put an optimistic spin on the scenarios that lie ahead. Population growth, combined with unsustainable behavior by both industry and individuals make a sudden reversal of greenhouse gas pollution extremely unlikely, if not unthinkable. Since we can't compel our neighbors to change their behavior, what's left? Preparation. We can build disaster-resistant housing.”
The Unthinkable Decision
Community members across the nation are being forced to make difficult choices about whether or not to rebuild after the assault of a flood, fire, or superstorm. Many of them opt to rebuild, resolute in their decision to not abandon the places where they grew up and raised families—the places they love the most.
But how many catastrophic events does it take to compel a community to reach the heartbreaking verdict that remaining in place is no longer worth the suffering that comes with each ensuing natural disaster? Where is the breaking point?
It’s sobering to recognize that, at some point, this profound decision may be taken out of the hands of community members, as local, state, and even federal governments intervene to prevent rebuilding in disaster zones.
But these types of initiatives are simply a drop in the bucket relative to what is needed, and despite the widespread destruction, it’s likely that not much will change.
Which brings us to the inevitable question: if there isn’t enough money to protect and rebuild every community impacted by climate change, which ones get salvaged and which are abandoned? Who makes the ultimate decisions, and how will those decisions be made?
The floodgate is opening, bringing with it a surge of unavoidable questions and uncomfortable decisions. In the end, which communities are valuable enough to protect?