Editorial: ‘New Normal,’ Means Revisiting Policy, Building Codes

Governments should have seen it coming, two or three decades ago when we first became aware that climate change had begun, with warmer air and water temperatures and changing weather patterns.

by The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. / April 24, 2019
AP/Max Becherer

(TNS) — In Congress, battles are raging over disaster relief spending. Who should get the help? Puerto Rico, still seeking emergency reconstruction money in the wake of 2017 Hurricane Maria (and yes, Puerto Rico is part of the United States and just as deserving of help as, say, North Carolina)? How about Hawaii, where volcanic eruptions have seen molten lava destroy homes, roads and other infrastructure? Nebraska and Iowa, which were inundated by some of the worst flooding in their history? California, trying to rebuild from the most widespread and deadly wildfires the state has ever seen? Or the Florida Panhandle and parts of Georgia, where homes and farms were wiped out by the violent Hurricane Michael last year?

All those disasters and more — they are a signature national wound of the 21st century, a growing roster of attacks by natural forces that are unprecedented in their power and frequency. The object of current congressional fisticuffs is a $13 billion disaster aid package that tries to address many of those violent and devastating acts of nature. And it's not nearly enough to repair what's been broken, let alone do what's needed to prepare for a future that's likely filled with more such fire, wind and water.

Government at every level should have seen it coming, two or three decades ago. That's when we first became aware that climate change had begun, with warmer air and water temperatures and changing weather patterns that were producing more and bigger storms, and droughts where the land was once verdant. As The Washington Post reported this week, taxpayer spending on federal disaster relief funds is almost 10 times greater than it was three decades ago — and that's adjusted for inflation.

At the same time, we've seen a decades-long, almost lemming-like rush of the American population to the coasts, with millions of new homes and businesses built in low-lying and vulnerable areas that can quickly be wiped clean by winds, storm surges and flooding. And when the storm passes, the survivors rush back and rebuild — with the help of state and federal governments.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency official, told the Post that, "We're seeing a lot more extremes, both in where we're allowing people to build and in the climate. You're seeing many more of these really bad disasters — the weather is intensifying —and people have really been allowed to build in places where they shouldn't."

As Gov. Roy Cooper has noted in the wake of hurricanes Matthew and Florence, we're experiencing the "new normal" and we need to do things differently. We can't afford to go on with our government-subsidized rebuilding, again and again, when there's no end in sight. The problem is that in many storm-prone and fire-prone states, developers and real estate interests are also generous political donors who have clout and access to government decision-makers. They have succeeded in preventing the passage of the rigorous zoning and building codes that we need to minimize damage. It's clear, when we look at what Matthew and Florence did here in North Carolina, that development should simply be barred in some locations. It's equally clear that construction codes in hurricane-prone areas are nowhere near robust enough to leave buildings standing after a severe storm hits.

Private property rights are held sacred by most Americans, but they needn't be underwritten by the public treasury, especially when the owners insist in building in unsafe locations, however attractive they may be. It's long past time to stop subsidizing the construction of residential and commercial properties in risky locations, and especially when those structures can't withstand the forces of nature. Federal and state governments need to rewrite policy, building codes and zoning maps to reflect the new realities of a changing climate. It's an urgent task that can't wait.

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©2019 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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