How to Protect Against Natural Disasters

The case for better planning.

Photographer: David J. Phillip/Getty Images

No matter how often the U.S. is hit with storms, wildfires and other natural disasters, cities and states remain poorly prepared. Houses are destroyed, transit systems are swamped, roads and bridges are wiped out. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sweeps in to help with cleanup, temporary shelter and rebuilding. But then life goes on, with little concern for next time -- because the political and financial incentives work against being prepared.

Hurricanes and Typhoons

Consider what's happened this year in Texas. Since January, the state has received federal assistance four times to cope with damage from heavy storms, winds and flooding. And FEMA has provided more than $120 million in aid to households, plus $30 million to rebuild infrastructure and public buildings. Still, the state has neglected to mandate a building code to make sure homes can withstand wind and flooding. Many areas have no building standards at all.

Texas stands out only for its bad luck this year. Across the U.S., few states and cities require common-sense precautions to protect against extreme weather or wildfires. Thirty states lack mandatory statewide residential building codes. With sea levels rising along the Atlantic Coast, almost 60 percent of its low-lying land remains zoned for more development.

State and local leaders have reason to resist imposing restrictions: Their voters dislike expensive rules to make houses more resilient or, worse, to abandon or refrain from developing flood- or fire-prone areas. Such measures can also reduce local tax revenue. And as long as the federal government pitches in after a disaster, state and local governments face little pressure to act beforehand.

But consider the cost of inaction. From 2002 to 2015, extreme weather killed more than 8,300 Americans and injured 43,000. Natural disasters destroyed more than 147,000 homes and damaged another 3.6 million. FEMA spent $142 billion on disaster relief, and the U.S. Forest Service is devoting an ever-growing share of its budget to firefighting.

The federal government will always have the responsibility to help out whenever any part of the country suffers a natural disaster. But it can also provide incentives to make America better prepared. FEMA has suggested, for example, imposing a deductible on states seeking disaster assistance, which would be waived for those that take as-yet-unspecified steps to protect themselves. Those steps should include enacting tougher building codes, more funding for buyout programs, or imposing risk-disclosure requirements on sellers.

Further incentives could be provided through the National Flood Insurance Program. Over the past decade, more than 83,000 buildings have received at least two flood-insurance payouts, and some 19,000 have gotten four or more. Congress should require local governments with the most of these "repetitive loss" properties to improve their planning -- including by relocating homes that keep getting flooded -- or lose access to the program.

Another way the federal government can help is to see that everyone has the information they need to plan well. This includes data on the effectiveness of various strategies (everything from elevating homes and erecting flood walls to buying out properties) and up-to-date assessments of regional flood and wildfire risks (a public-private database announced last week will help with this). Congress should especially make sure that taxpayers know the cost of inaction, perhaps by including a separate surcharge on federal income taxes to fund disaster relief, as Australia has done.

QuickTake Climate Change

Some places are moving ahead without prodding. Mississippi passed a statewide building code two years ago. And Maryland became the first state to require fire sprinklers in new homes. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the local water utility uses ratepayer funds to buy houses at the greatest risk of flooding, tear them down and turn the land into flood buffers. And communities in fire-prone parts of Washington and Oregon have required homebuilders to use less flammable materials.

States and cities need to do more of such planning. Climate change will only increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather and fires. There should be no excuse not to prepare.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.