By Rob Jordan

In Superstorm Sandy’s wake, there is a window of opportunity to fundamentally rethink the way we prepare for extreme weather and sea level rise. The U.S. needs to overhaul federal flood insurance and disaster recovery programs, retrofit infrastructure, protect natural systems that buffer against storms and consider legislation to improve local, state and federal resilience efforts.

That was the consensus of legal, governmental and environmental experts who offered their insights as part of a panel discussion that followed the March 28 presentation of a new survey commissioned by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Center for Ocean Solutions. The survey finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans want to prepare in order to minimize the damage likely to be caused by global warming-induced sea level rise and storms. A majority also want people whose properties and businesses are located in hazard areas – not the government – to foot the bill for this preparation. The survey’s director, Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Jon Krosnick, presented results at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Unchecked coastal development and increasingly frequent extreme weather is a recipe for disaster, said panel moderator Meg Caldwell, executive director of the Center for Ocean Solutions. “We’re putting more and more people in harm’s way.” The tide may be turning though, Caldwell indicated, citing New York State’s recent decisions to list climate change as a risk for bondholders and to fund a $400 million buyout program for homes in high-risk coastal areas.

“The timing of (the survey) couldn’t be better,” said panelist Laurie McGilvray, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Estuarine Reserves Divisions. Among McGilvray’s recommendations is to “give natural systems (such as dunes) a chance to be resilient to climate change” and equip local planners with data projections that help visualize the range and variation of future climate change-related extreme weather events. “That way, they’re going to figure out how much risk they can either afford or absorb in their adaptation strategies.”

After suffering $19 billion in damages and 43 deaths as a result of Sandy, New York City is focused on adaptation and sustainability initiatives, said panelist Cas Holloway, the city’s deputy mayor for operations, who oversaw preparations and recovery for Hurricane Sandy. New York City plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in green infrastructure retrofits such as permeable pavement and increased floodwater capacity. The city also is preparing for extreme weather-related problems ranging from power blackouts to water supply contamination. “The allocation of resources has to be spread across all these possibilities,” Holloway said.

Because compelling people to “retreat” from the coast is unlikely to succeed, Holloway said, the focus for storm-damaged areas is on making homes and businesses more resilient.

Before rebuilding takes place, the federal government should overhaul its heavily subsidized flood insurance program, said panelist Margaret Peloso, an attorney with Vinson & Elkins LLP. “It’s insolvent on its face,” encourages rebuilding the same structures as before and unfairly spreads the burden, Peloso said. “We’re all paying for it.”

The survey found that Americans overwhelmingly believe that people and businesses most at risk from sea level rise and damaging storms, not the general public or government, should foot the bill for related preparation and recovery efforts. If that’s true, the current practice of spreading the risk (and financial costs) of flood insurance and disaster recovery across the nation is out of step with public opinion.

Peloso is working on a paper that looks at weaknesses in federal flood insurance and disaster response programs. In it she discusses how these programs allow and encourage coastal property owners to assume more risk of catastrophic property loss than they would personally be willing to bear. Peloso offers potential solutions in the paper, including a proposal for compulsory, national multiperil insurance to encourage climate change adaptation and improve solvency of federal disaster relief programs. “As a policy goal, it’s good to have everybody insured,” Peloso said.

Reached for comment before the panel discussion, Peloso said, “There’s a really big structural disconnect between who is making decisions about how money will be spent and who is spending the money.” Most coastal development permitting decisions are made by local or state agencies, but most insurance and disaster recovery costs are borne by federal programs.

Federal relief after Sandy amounted to $60 billion, said panelist Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “How many times can we do this?”

Legislation to encourage more state and federal adaptation planning and disaster response coordination could be a step toward rectifying the situation, Werner said, citing as an example the Strengthening the Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground (STRONG) Act introduced in the U.S. Senate in December 2012. The bill would provide state and local planners with better extreme weather preparation and resiliency tools and information, and improve planning and response coordination with federal agencies.

How should planners account for various climate change scenarios? Who should pay for stepped-up adaptation efforts? Those were some of the questions audience members asked that remain to be answered.