Deluges and Dollars

August 2018
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

As Governing’s Mike Maciag writes in this issue, many areas of the country are seeing significant residential and commercial development on flood-prone land. Not only are local governments allowing it, but in some cases they’re even encouraging it. The rewards are obvious: It’s an easy route to population growth, grows the tax base and makes powerful lobbying groups happy. It strikes me as not unlike the use of tax incentives. And as is often the case with such tax breaks, governments are allowing this development without really knowing the costs, which are surely going to increase because of both climate change and federal policy.

Floods are the most frequent form of natural disaster. They affect all 50 states and are mostly inland and caused by rain. Since 2000, for example, Minnesota has recorded nearly three times as many devastating “mega-rain” events as in the previous 27 years. At $306 billion in economic losses, weather disasters across the country last year set a new annual record. Nearly all government disaster spending comes after a devastating event occurs, even though the National Institute of Building Sciences estimates a benefit of $6 for every $1 spent on pre-disaster mitigation.

Not only are the costs rising, but they are underestimated. In a new report, the Pew Charitable Trusts found that states “face challenges in collecting complete and comparable disaster expenditure information, particularly coordinating record-keeping across many agencies and maintaining policymaker attention on tracking.” State and local governments need to do a much better job of recording expenditures on response and recovery, as well as on transportation, housing, public safety and social services.

As disasters increase in numbers and costs, it would be a mistake to look for salvation from Washington. The Pew report quotes Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as calling for “an honest conversation with state and local governments as to what is the right balance for sustaining programs in responding and recovery.” Clearly, more costs are going to be shifted to state and local governments.

So what can they do? They can better control costs by changing land use policies and investing in mitigation. Local policymakers in particular need to look at the long-term impact of climate change, compare its forecast costs to the benefits of development and choose wisely. Lots of mayors talk about leading on climate change. This is a practical and responsible way for them to do so.