What Does the November Election Mean for Coastal America?
By Howard Marlowe
[Alert: Take a deep breath because there is nothing partisan in this article.] Here is how the outcome of the November election could affect coastal communities. All House seats are up for election every two years. More than 10% of the 435 voting members the House are not seeking re-election to that seat. Most of this group are retiring, but some are running for some other elective office. One-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years, with 6 of the 33 retiring from public office. If your current Representative or Senator is not running for re-election, what will the person who replaces them mean for your priorities? Obviously, the answer is primarily subjective. But there are a couple of objective factors to consider.
The first is seniority. Newly elected Representatives and Senators have no seniority compared to those who are departing. Those of you who live in retiring Rep. Peter DeFazio’s Oregon district will lose a person who has been in Congress for 36 years and is chair of the powerful House committee with jurisdiction over water, transportation, and environmental issues. Whoever replaces him will start with 0 years of seniority and will not be elected chair of any committee. Alabamans will be losing Sen. Richard Shelby who has also served for 36 years and is the ranking Republican on the equally powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. If Republicans take over control of the Senate and Shelby were not retiring, he would have become chair of that committee. Regardless of party affiliation, members of Congress with long seniority are usually able to get more done on policy and funding issues than those with little seniority. Those that have served longer have made connections with people in federal agencies and elsewhere that put them in a position to provide more effective constituent service. Incidentally, the chair of Senate Appropriations, Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, with 48 years in that position, is also retiring, guaranteeing that November’s election will mean a new chair come January 2023 no matter which party controls the Senate.
The second factor is committee assignments. Newly elected Representatives and Senators try to get the committee assignments they feel will best meet their constituents. For example, if coastal policies and funding are a high priority for you, then the examples of the changes cited above mean that November’s elections may have a significant impact. When Congress is in session, dozens of new bills get introduced every day. In this Congress, of the 287 bills introduced that directly affect coastal interests, only 5 have become law so far. When Congress returns on November 14th for its final sprint to the end of the year, with luck another 2 or 3 may become law. What that means is that the odds are strongly stacked against any individual proposal that is introduced. If the sponsor of a measure is on the committee with jurisdiction over that issue (and if they have seniority on that committee), a measure has a chance of getting at least a public hearing where its proponents can try their best to get the committee to approve the legislation for a House or Senate floor vote. Of the 287 tracked bills, 230 have never even had a hearing.
In these days of partisan divide, the control of the next Congress is likely to be as razor thin as it has been for the last few years. Nevertheless, most of the few coastal bills that pass have traditionally had strong bipartisan support. This November’s elections will certainly bring changes, but their meaning for America’s coasts and their environments depends on the fresh opportunities that coastal activists have for building on that underlying bipartisanship.
Hurricane Ian – What’s Next for the Corps of Engineers?
By Dan Ginolfi
Fort Myers, Captiva Island, and Sanibel Island took the brunt of Hurricane Ian, leaving almost nothing behind except the most fortified structures – mostly condo buildings and hotels. Most single homes were destroyed or flooded completely. In other parts of the US, such as Myrtle Beach and New Jersey, Hurricane Ian brought days of strong wind, waves, and flooding. Myrtle Beach lost the dunes on its beach, exacerbating flooding from precipitation while allowing storm surge to wash down the streets. New Jersey had 10 to 15-foot cliffs chewed away from its massive dune systems. Despite significant losses of sand from the beach, much of the sand remains a short distance offshore and much of it returns slowly back to the beach during calm weather. That is the most that these communities can hope for in the meantime until help from the US Army Corps of Engineers arrives. Several of the beaches in New Jersey are scheduled to be renourished this winter.
Florida and South Carolina both received federal disaster declarations, but New Jersey did not, despite greater losses on its beach from the remnants of Ian, which became a nearly 5-day Nor’easter event. A federal disaster declaration makes certain Corps projects eligible for federal disaster assistance under the Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies Act, which allows the Corps the rebuild the beaches to their design profile. The resulting losses from Ian will require greater funding for more sand to be pumped onto the beach, and we hope to see that in the supplemental disaster bill that Congress provides for Hurricane Ian.
It is also important that the legislative language in the Hurricane Ian disaster bill includes resiliency clauses that allow the federal government to rebuild to a better engineering standard than it had previously. This prevents the Corps from rebuilding to the status-quo or pre-storm conditions, which, as proved by the storm, was inadequate.
With the job of protecting America’s developed shoreline against flooding and coastal storms, the Corps of Engineers has major work ahead of it following major catastrophes like Hurricane Ian. The standard protocol for the Corps is to assess damages and then provide Congress with estimates of the costs of those damages so that lawmakers can move quickly to pass disaster supplemental appropriations bills. These bills are in addition to the 12 annual spending bills and authorize the Corps and other federal agencies to take action under the emergency authority PL 84-99. The last Corps supplemental bill authorized $3.258 billion in federal funding after Hurricane Michael, or about half the Corps’ annual budget. In addition, as part of the just-passed Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded until December 16th, there’s $18.8 billion for current and future disasters. However, none of that money will go to the repair of water resources projects constructed by the Corps of Engineers; that is FEMA money. for humanitarian aid.
Housing Market, FL
While some investors are looking to make the best of a bad situation by buying up destroyed properties, another disaster may be unfolding right in front of our eyes – that is the financial ruin that will saddle many residents who don’t have or recently gave up their flood insurance policies. As reported by E&E news, “Ian's web of damage was unusually widespread as the hurricane drove storm surge onto coastal areas and triggered river overflows and flash flooding across inland Florida, where almost nobody has flood insurance.” Disaster declarations were made in 9 counties, making residents eligible for federal aid to pay for minor home repairs, short-term housing, and other emergency costs. But of the 1.8 million households in those nine counties, only 29 percent had federal flood insurance, according to an analysis of government records. That leaves 1.3 million households at ground zero without federal flood coverage.”
Even worse… Ian hit Florida as the state faces an insurance crisis. Policyholders there pay the nation’s highest property-insurance rates, and huge losses have forced six small Florida-based insurers into insolvency this year while others have stopped writing new policies.
That has pushed homeowners into Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed insurer of last resort. The number of its policyholders has doubled in the past two years and recently passed 1 million for the first time since 2014. Disputes and litigation will arise when property insurers like Citizens deny claims because they say damage was caused by flooding — which they don't cover.
For context, The denial rate in Florida for Hurricane Matthew in 2016 was roughly 40 percent. People without flood insurance will have to rely on FEMA aid, which is capped at $72,000 but usually results in payments of less than $10,000.
Sinking Tax Base
As lower-lying homes begin to flood more often, those value of those homes slowly erodes, further sinking the tax base of the municipality, making it more difficult to implement resiliency projects. And as high-and-dry properties get bought by more wealthy individuals, lower income men, women, and families, will be forced to reside in less-costly, yet more risky areas. This is truly a vicious cycle that must be addressed systematically with investment from federal, state, and local governments, and the private sector.
In order for our federal agencies to respond to disasters like Ian, they need funding. Fortunately, Congress recently passed a continuing resolution to fund the government through December 16th, provide disaster aid and another short-term extension to the NFIP (again), and provide low-income energy assistance. Right now, there is $18.8 billion for FEMA to respond to Hurricane Ian, but as noted above that will not enable the Corps to rebuild beaches. The CR also provides $2 billion in funding for the community development block grant program.
- 100+ Scientists call for aquaculture, offshore wind farms, and other new industries to be sited outside of the whales’ known habitat
- CRS Report | Flooding: Selected Federal Assistance and Programs to Reduce Risk
That’s all for this month. Keep an eye out for an e-waterlog update later this month. Please share this podcast with a friend and remember you can stay up today by following us on LinkedIn and subscribing to WaterLog if you haven’t already. Be sure to tune into our podcast on November 2nd!