We Americans are at our best when we’re on offense, facing enemies and taking advantage of opportunities. As a country, we got our start by taking up arms so that we could achieve our freedom. Then we saw the land lying west of the Mississippi as opportunity and went west with lots of determination and very little planning. In the process, individuals blazed the trails to establish small communities, expanded our waterways to get to and from these new settlements, and then achieved the full reach of our nationhood when we built the transcontinental railroads that tied all regions of the U.S. together. We overcame every obstacle, from Native Americans to huge mountains and parched earth deserts to achieve what we wanted. Some of the essential elements such as the transcontinental railroad and a national highway system could not have been accomplished without both funding and favorable policies from the Federal Government. But the initiative came first from individuals, groups of people, towns, cities, and states together with businesspeople who saw opportunities and took initiatives. These were people who had been accustomed to the luxuries of urban living but were able to adjust to accommodate an environment that required rugged individuals.
Today we face different serious challenges ranging from a changing world economy to the expansion of domestic equality. There is one challenge can’t defeat but must accommodate: climate change. If we take it on, we can have the kind of communities, jobs, schools and services we want. If we don’t, we and others on this planet will wither under its impact. When dealing with an adversary as big as this one, the best defense is a good offense. But Who? What? How? And Why?
I want to focus on flooding to answer my question of why we should be concerned. Heavy rainfall causes wet basements, disrupts vehicular traffic, slows commerce and degrades septic tanks. Along the East and West Coasts, high tide flooding in 2019 is projected to be more than twice what it was in 2000 according to a June report from NOAA. This kind of flooding doesn’t have to be caused by bad weather or storms. Increasingly, it occurs because of a steady breeze or a change in coastal current happens at the same time as a high tide.
Some call this nuisance flooding, but it’s the kind of nuisance that is eating into the value of coastal property. First Street Foundation, one of several who gotten barrels of ink from similar reports, did an analysis of nearly 4 million properties in several states and declared that “Rising seas erode $15.8 billion in home value from Maine to Mississippi.” While this loss is comprised of decreases in projected sales values based on past real estate transactions, the data are a red flag for communities throughout the U.S. that rely on taxes on the assessed value of property for most of their revenues. Most communities rely on borrowing against future property tax revenues to finance major improvements, banking on those revenues being adequate to implement their capital plans. Declining revenues makes it harder and more costly to borrow. A crippled tax base will undermine the ability of local economies to implement risk-reduction measures, effectively making the problem even worse. The issue of real estate values is one that cannot be ignored.
I’m talking about the bottom line that will affect every coastal residence and business as well as the U.S. tourism industry that is the third largest contributor to our Gross Domestic Product, behind only real estate and manufacturing. Forty percent of our population lives along the coasts. That’s over 130 million people. If they were one country, they would have an economy second only to the U.S. and China. I haven’t even touched on critical issues such as public safety and quality of life that are harmed by flooding, but I hope I answered the question of Why you should be concerned. Oh, you don’t live anywhere near the coast? Flooding is a national problem; just check out this list from last year of the 20 worst. Climate change is only making the problem worse.
Individual homeowners can reduce their risk from flood damage by raising their building; communities can adopt zoning laws that prohibit new structures in flood-prone areas; states can adopt building codes to increase resilience. But it’s long past time when we had strong national leadership on climate change. Somehow, despite flooding occurring in nearly every congressional district, it’s become a partisan issue in Washington and is suffering the same paralysis and gridlock as all the other important issues of our day.
Obviously, communities with leadership and money are already taking actions, but that’s a small number. What about the rest of us? Many communities are doing resilience plans; that’s an important first step, but those plans gather dust when local and state leaders realize they don’t have the money to implement the recommendations of their own plans. Meanwhile, the risks are only growing greater and the costs are only getting higher.
The time to act is now. Our economy is awash in money in the hands of that 1 or 2 percent of the population, most of whom want to use it to make more money. From planning to implementing, there’s money to be made and jobs to be filled by reducing flood risk and creating sustainable communities. Is that main local road in need of repair, why not raise it? Utilities unable to withstand hurricane force winds – they’ll have to be replaced. Backbays overtopping bulkheads? They’ll need to be redesigned. Roads flooding during high tides? They’ll have to be raised. First floors of office and apartment buildings getting flooded? They’ll have to be rearranged so people and property no longer occupy that space. This all comes at a cost but in America, we have a choice: We can do nothing and make the ever-increasing billions spent on post-disaster recovery the cost of doing business, or we can take one-fifth of that money and invest in a sustainable future for your community and mine.