The people of Florida deserve nothing less than every effort this nation can muster to help them rebuild after Hurricane Ian cut a swath of destruction through that state late last month. Lives turned upside down by that storm will not easily be put right and Washington should be there to assist, as it does after each of these tragedies.
That said, American taxpayers who will foot the bill are right to expect the states themselves to take all available steps to mitigate against disaster in the face of more frequent and more destructive storms. And there will come a time when disaster relief will be contingent, in some measure, on preventive measures taken before a hurricane hits.
Ian slammed into the Gulf Coast of Florida on Sept. 28 as a high-end Category 4 storm, bringing tremendous rainfall, powerful winds and an enormous storm surge to one of the most densely populated parts of that state.
The area between Fort Myers and Naples, including the barrier islands there, suffered catastrophic damage. More than 100 people are dead and an estimated 40,000 people have been displaced.
It’s already believed this will be Florida’s costliest natural disaster and, adjusting for inflation, may rival Katrina in 2005 as the nation’s costliest hurricane. Estimates suggest the total price tag for damage inflicted by Ian from Florida to Virginia could exceed $70 billion.
Those affected will rebuild, as we always do, trying our best to piece together lives, homes and businesses shattered by the storm. It will be an arduous and time-consuming process. And, as the estimates suggest, it will be very costly, far more than any one community or state could shoulder alone.
So the burden will be shared, as is right and just. As a country, the United States should pull together in times of trouble and help each other when the need arises — as East Coast taxpayers help pay for Western wildfires and Midwestern tornadoes, so others will help those who live in the path of tropical storms.
However, unlike tornadoes — which are unpredictable and arbitrary — those who live on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts know full well that hurricanes are an annual threat. Officials elected to lead these communities and states know it as well.
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They know that, every year, a monster storm could slam into land. And scientists continue to produce mountains of data confirming that a changing climate that leads to warmer seas will make for more powerful and destructive storms.
Virginia understands this. It’s why state lawmakers created the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund, to pay for resilience projects to protect coastal and other at-risk communities from flooding. And it’s why the General Assembly voted to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to provide money for that program.
That’s not the commonwealth’s only effort to bolster flood protections. Norfolk, for example, has a $1.8 billion project underway to improve its defenses and is sharing the cost of that project with federal and state funds. There are plenty of other examples.
Florida has also done plenty to steel itself against tropical destruction, including its first statewide flooding resilience plan announced in December. But when billions in relief pour in following Ian — again, as it should — people will be allowed to rebuild in highly suspect and at-risk areas, raising the likelihood of doing this all again in the near future.
Florida is not alone in this, and federal rules allow it. That simply has to change.
Again, this is no time to dwell on Florida’s past mistakes or, obviously, to withhold aid from those who need it. But this country’s emphasis on post-disaster recovery spending rather than pre-disaster resilience investment means additional expense to taxpayers and is ultimately unsustainable.
State and community leaders need to be at the forefront of this, and Washington must find a way to incentivize preemptive action.