The United States is having a rough couple of weeks on the hurricane front. First, Fiona caused major damage in Puerto Rico, and now, Ian has cut a huge swath of destruction across Florida and is making a second landfall in South Carolina.
There have been massive flooding, wind damage, and major infrastructure impacts, including roads, bridges, and electrical, water, and communication systems. Sadly, there have also been injuries and deaths attributed to the storms and their aftermath.
Aid is being rendered by governments at all levels, by utilities, by charitable organizations, and by volunteers.
After the immediate emergency needs are met, attention will turn to rebuilding.
The first question to ask is “Should we?” There are places where the answer may be “No.” I’m thinking about places like barrier islands and directly on shorelines that are geologically unsuitable, being vulnerable to both storms and sea level rise. Further, the sand that characterizes these areas is meant to move and their natural structure serves to help protect inland areas from the worst of the storm surge and winds. Building there is asking for trouble and re-building there is setting up for losses in the future. With stronger and more frequent storms forecast due to global warming, it may be wisest at this point for government and insurers to buy out property owners in these vulnerable places so that homes and businesses can move to safer locations inland.
In other places, rebuilding may be possible but with much stricter requirements. For example, buildings can be elevated so that flood water can rise beneath them without damaging living space. Structures can be designed to be wind-resistant so roofs don’t blow off during storms. Mobile homes, unless they really are mobile, i.e. on wheels so they can be easily relocated away from danger, should not be allowed at all in storm zones.
It’s vital to rebuild infrastructure with resilience in mind. Five years ago, hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid in Puerto Rico. It was still fragile when Fiona hit but locations that had switched to solar power with battery backup were able to keep their power on. Tropical coastlines are great places for solar power and also for offshore wind, which could have the added benefit of reducing wind speeds from storms.
These changes won’t be easy but they are necessary. The alternative is to continue the cycle of destruction and expensive rebuilding over and over again.
Some of you may be thinking that I don’t understand the difficulty and trauma of leaving a beloved location instead of trying to rebuild there, but I have seen it up close in my town. After the last two record floods of the Susquehanna in 2006 and 2011, many people here faced the decision to rebuild in the same place, perhaps with elevation, or move elsewhere. If people took buyouts, the sites of their former homes were converted to greenspace. There are two neighborhoods near me that are dotted with these lots that used to be homes and yards.
My family lives with the realization that our home, on which we carry flood insurance even though we are not technically in a flood zone, could be impacted in the next record flood. (We are just a few blocks from places that flooded last time.) Depending on the damage incurred, we could be faced with the same decision to take a buyout or repair and elevate our home. It’s painful to think about and I don’t know which we’d choose.
We’ve been here for over 35 years. It would be hard to leave the neighborhood. I do know, though, that we wouldn’t ignore reality/risks and try to rebuild as we are now.
I opt for safety over sentiment.