Guest Op-ed: Rising Rates and Sea Levels

Bay State ocean waters and insurance rates are rising. Just ask those holding 25,000 federally subsidized coastal flood insurance policies in Massachusetts. These contracts insulate people from the full risks of living on the shore—risks that private insurance companies have long refused to take, making taxpayers assume the burden. Today, due to bigger and more frequent ocean storms, property loss has drowned the national program under $24 billion of debt. Much of this debt mounted post Hurricanes Alex, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy.

To ensure that future flood insurance rates more accurately reflect the risks associated with living in hazardous coastal floodplains, in 2012, Congress experienced a rare moment of clarity and passed comprehensive flood insurance reform.

When the new rate increases took effect, it sparked widespread panic and Congress quickly backpedaled and then hit the snooze button on any serious rate reform. It seems that Congress is more than willing to step into the limelight to rebuild homes and businesses, but not to promote solutions that prevent or minimize property destruction in the first place. One thing is for certain, all this new attention to the risks of coastal living is a wake-up call and we would be wise to pay attention.

For those facing King Neptune’s inevitable onslaught of coastal destruction and havoc, there are options that include moving buildings back from the shore, elevating structures on pilings, renourishing beaches with sediment to strengthen their natural storm buffering capacity, and purchasing properties in harm’s way.

Evidence of completed federal coastal property buyout programs from across the country shows that these types of investments pay for themselves within 10 years by permanently avoiding response, rescue, recovery, and repair costs from future floods. Most importantly, the lives of first responders and residents are spared.

Flooding causes almost half of all disaster-related property destruction in America—and it’s getting worse. A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency study found that sea-level rise will expand the nation’s flood-hazard areas by more than half by 2100, with the number of associated flood-insurance policies increasing by an astounding 130 percent. A growing coastal population exacerbates the problem. The US Census Bureau reports that almost 40 percent of Americans now live in coastal counties. Here at home, according to the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office, 85 percent of Massachusetts’ 6.7 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast.

A 2005 congressionally mandated study found that for every $1 invested in “hazard- mitigation activities,” the national economy saves $4 in losses from future disasters, and saved an additional $3.65 in costs to the US Treasury from avoided disaster-recovery expenditures and lost tax revenues.  A bill championed by Senator Mark Pacheco of Taunton, Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture includes coastal buyback simply because it is among the most cost-effective and pragmatic mitigation measures for addressing high-hazard coastal areas. Specifically, a voluntary coastal buy-back program would:

• Invest in high-risk properties in advance of flood disasters;

• Clean up and restore properties to their natural conditions while conserving them for public benefits such as parklands, wildlife refuges, and public beaches ( only one-third of Massachusetts’ 1,500-mile shoreline is open to the public);• Provide storm buffers as repaired coastal resources absorb floodwaters and save uplands from flooding; and

• Capture and store heat-trapping carbon pollution within restored coastal ecosystems, mitigating some of the worst effects of climate change.

A coastal buy-back program would convert vulnerable and dangerous flood-prone properties from liabilities to valuable community assets.

The alternative is to continue pouring money into an undertow of debt on behalf of homeowners who just want out, and taxpayers and an environment just needing relief.

Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon and a recent gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Coastal Erosion Commission.

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