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The Storms That Test Local Governments

They increasingly bear most of the burdens of the disasters that climate change brings. Those that combine strong building codes and zoning that keeps people out of dangerous areas will fare the best and better protect their most vulnerable residents.

Damaged cars on Fort Myers Beach after Hurricane Ian
Damaged cars lay among the debris of homes destroyed by Hurricane Ian on Fort Myers Beach on Oct. 3, 2022.
(Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)
With Hurricane Ian barreling down on Florida in late September, Mark and Rhonda Wilkerson decided to hunker down and ride out the storm. But unlike thousands of other residents of the Fort Myers area, their home didn’t even lose a shingle.

They had moved into Babcock Ranch, a planned community where the development included a host of strategies to minimize damage in a major storm. Utilities are underground. Power is solar. Retaining ponds collect stormwater runoff. The latest building codes guide construction. Because of the developer’s steps, the community lost but a traffic light, a few palm trees and a couple of street signs. The town’s residents told “60 Minutes” that none of them lost power.

But in Fort Myers itself and other Lee County communities, cars ended up in the water and boats sat on city streets, sometimes piled on top of each other. Some trailer parks were completely wiped out. James Burdett, who had moved to the area from Virginia, surveyed the damage from his leather chair. Next to the chair, he had his remote control, but the rest of his home had been destroyed. “I literally watched my house disappear with everything in it, right before my eyes,” he said. All told, 45 deaths in Lee County were attributed to Ian’s Category 4 devastation.

The contrast between the experiences of the Wilkersons and Burdett could scarcely have been greater. And the huge difference underlines two critical points: With climate change threatening even more extreme weather events, the impact will vary enormously across the country. And the burden for preparing for, managing and responding will rest almost entirely on local governments.

It's not only storms. Coalinga, Calif., for example, is projected to run out of its water allocation from the San Luis Reservoir well before the end of the year. The city’s only option will be to purchase water from other suppliers, including farmers and irrigation districts. But Sean Brewer, the assistant city manager, reported that the cost of water might jump from $190 per acre-foot to $2,500. Just to buy enough water to get to New Year’s might cost the city 25 percent of its annual budget.

Meanwhile, the state’s fire-suppression expenditures jumped to $1.2 billion in the most recent year, almost double the year before. Airborne tankers and ground-based crews are spending far more time putting out historically large fires — fires whose aftermath will mostly be left for local communities to cope with.

Enormous Inequalities

When disasters strike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) typically comes riding to the rescue and, despite partisan haggling, Congress has usually appropriated enough money to help local communities begin their recovery from climate-induced disasters. No amount of money, however, can begin to compensate those communities for the pain of putting themselves back together. For those who do get federal money, FEMA’s grants typically are capped at far less than the cost of temporary shelter, let alone rebuilding. And congressional appropriations for disaster relief are becoming more contentious, so there’s no guarantee that the money will continue to flow.

Local governments increasingly bear most of the burden of dealing with these disasters, whether from drought or flooding, tornadoes or earthquakes. But lurking in the background is another subtle but important point: For local communities, the challenge not only is recovering from weather disasters; it’s also dealing with the often-enormous inequalities that the storms tend to produce.

Even before Ian’s wrathful run through Florida, researchers were pointing to how hurricanes tended to harm vulnerable communities the most. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the highest death rates occurred in the lowest-income areas. The same was true for Hurricane Katrina’s Gulf Coast rampage in 2015. So when Ian hit Florida, it was no surprise that lower-income neighborhoods got hit hardest.

The larger impact of big storms on lower-income areas collides with the prescription that many economists make for reducing storm damage: insurance. Insurers can price the risks that storm-prone areas face (and, for that matter, fire- and drought-prone areas) into the premiums they charge. That can help homeowners rebuild and, more importantly, create incentives for individuals to stay away from areas where they are most at risk.

This is an elegant solution. But it doesn’t work. Lower-income individuals tend to move where land is cheapest, and that’s often in the most risk-prone neighborhoods. In New Orleans, for example, wealthier individuals gravitated to neighborhoods on higher ground. What was left for poorer families, like the Lower Ninth Ward that Katrina devastated, tended to be on lower ground, and the residents paid for it. Climate disasters hit the poor hardest because they tend to be more likely to live in the bull’s-eye.

And relatively few of these homeowners have flood insurance — just 17 percent in the Texas area hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and most of them were wealthier homeowners. In Florida, Ian’s initial strike landed in areas where 24 percent of homes had flood insurance. Farther inland, the percentage dropped to about 2 to 4 percent.

Couple that with the fact that the area already ranked high in income inequality — the most unequal area in the state with the nation’s second-highest level of inequality. And compare that with the fact that the National Flood Insurance Program paid 16 times to rebuild a Houston home over an 18-year period — a million dollars of outlays for a $120,000 home. A Baton Rouge home flooded 40 times, while another property north of St. Louis produced 34 claims.

So the flood-insurance program has often failed in creating incentives to encourage people to stay away from flood-prone areas. Insurance is so expensive that many homeowners don’t buy it, so many who need flood insurance the most don’t have it. For some other homeowners, the program has been a waste, funding rebuilding in storm-prone areas instead of encouraging them to move to higher ground.

Building for Wind and Water

That takes us back to the Wilkersons and their neighbors in Babcock Ranch. The key to dealing with hurricane damage is, first, not to build or live where the threat is the highest, and then to be sure that the homes that are built are most able to resist a megastorm. The key to Babcock Ranch’s success was that its developers used building strategies designed to fight off the winds and to protect from the water.

The same was true of nearby Punta Gorda, where the city created one of the toughest building codes in Florida. When Hurricane Charley churned through in 2004, it cleared out many of the older homes. The properties reconstructed afterward had to meet the new codes. As Joe Schortz, who owns a local building company, said after Ian, “Everything with a 2007 code and beyond pretty much was fine.”

It helps to more securely tie down the roof to the walls and connect the walls to the foundation. It helps to elevate homes above the high-water mark. Communities that have put in place tough building codes have weathered storms far better. Some of the steps are expensive, but they are vastly cheaper than having to rebuild a home — let alone rebuild it again and again.

The surest way to mitigate the ravages of climate change is to act locally, and to act in ways that pay attention in particular to the needs of lower-income individuals who often suffer most. That can mean strong building codes as well as tough zoning standards that can make it harder to make vulnerable areas a magnet for poorer residents — and creating new zoning standards to make housing more affordable elsewhere. But resilience is the surest way to avoid driving the wedge of inequality even deeper.

“This isn’t just a Florida issue,” explained Nicholas Rajkovich, associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. “This is a national issue. Thinking about a national strategy for resilience is really important for this country to be able to adapt to climate change.” And that national issue is, at its roots, a menu for local action.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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