Floods, hurricanes, and wildfires left paths of devastation in 2018. Although cost estimates are still being compiled for the year’s natural disasters, conservative assessments of damages are staggering. The Ohio River crested at 60.53 feet in February, causing the worst flooding much of Ohio and Kentucky had seen since 1997. Louisville, Kentucky alone suffered $3.5 billion in damages. Hurricane Michael made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on October 10 and became the strongest hurricane to hit the continental US since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Experts estimate the overall economic impact of Hurricane Michael in the range of $30 to $40 billion, whereas the total economic loss of Hurricane Florence is predicted to be between $6 and $11 billion.
The 2018 wildfire season was almost as active as the 2017 season. From January 1 to October 12, 2018, there were 49,658 wildfires in the U.S, compared to 51,126 wildfires in the same period in 2017. Around 8.1 million acres burned in the 2018 period, compared with 8.6 million in 2017. Both California and Colorado suffered from record setting fires this year. The Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California, the largest fire in state history, burned 459,123 acres. Coupled with the Carr fire, insured residential and commercial losses top $845 million. In Colorado, fires burned more than 431,606 acres this year making 2018 the second worst wildfire season in history.
The wildfire season continues to ravish California. At the time of this writing, the Camp Fire in Northern California wildfire became the most destructive in the state’s modern history, killing at least 29 people, leaving 228 people missing, and nearly destroying an entire town. The Camp Fire decimated nearly 7,000 structures in Paradise, California, including 80 to 90 percent of the town’s homes. The Woolsey Fire in Southern California claimed 2 lives and destroyed at least 370 structures. Woolsey tore through Malibu and neighboring communities, and consumed over 91,572 acres. Fire officials estimate the wildfires have forced more than 250,000 people to evacuate from their homes statewide.
Rebuilding from 2018’s unprecedented destruction will require not only reestablishing infrastructure, homes, and businesses, but ensuring that what is rebuilt is made less vulnerable to future natural disasters.
All states affected by the 2018 disasters have sought Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) help. FEMA funds public assistance and individual assistance as well as hazard mitigation. Even though every $1 invested in disaster prep saves $6, in the past, a paltry percentage of disaster assistance has gone to preparation. Of FEMA’s total disaster-relief fund, only 7% goes to hazard mitigation or prevention. From 2005 to 2014, just $600 million of the more than $277 billion federal dollars for disaster assistance went to reduce further disaster risk and costs.
Hazard mitigation reduces future disaster costs. Examples include funding flood-resistant buildings, relocating people from risky areas through buyouts, and improving drainage by preserving wetlands and open space. More policymakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that a greater share of FEMA’s resources need to go to hazard mitigation.
After Hurricane Harvey, the US Congress Joint Economic Committee published the November 2017 study, The Need to Rebuild Smarter, which concludes more FEMA funds be allocated to hazard mitigation, and zoning standards need to be strengthened to prevent building in high-risk areas. That means municipal, state, and federal governments need to work together to reduce future losses of life and property.
In response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified its long-term plans for disaster recovery on July 5, 2018. These plans included projects to reduce damage from floods and storms across multiple states and Puerto Rico. The disaster recovery investment plan allocated $111.89 million for studies related to reducing flood and coastal-storm damage in 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In August, 85.64% of voters in Texas’s Harris County approved a $2.5 billion bond preposition to fund flood-mitigation projects. These projects prioritize flood control, resilience and mitigation for the county. Developing flood-hazard-resilient communities is essential to future-proofing cities across the nation.
Whether you are awaiting relief or thinking about how close you live to a river, you should consider personal preparation strategies now. Likewise, those living next to burned areas will have to worry about runoff when the rains come. There are a variety of simple steps you can take now to do your own hazard mitigation. For ideas check out FEMA’s Are You Ready?
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