Three ways to build back smarter after Hurricane Ian
By Elena Shao
The damage from Hurricane Ian will very likely run into the tens of billions of dollars and scientists say the United States can expect more severe storms like it as the planet heats up. They also say the risks of increasingly wild weather make it all the more urgent that cities and states take steps to protect people and property.
One of the ways to do that is to heed lessons and rebuild wisely after big storms. In some cases, for example, it might not make sense to replace homes on low-lying land, over and over again, in areas vulnerable to storm surge.
“There’s no point in repeating the same mistakes in exactly the same way,” said Auroop R. Ganguly, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. When it comes to rebuilding, he said, “there is a tendency for people to look in the rearview mirror” and assume that what we built before is still tenable.
Instead, it is becoming increasingly important to think about the future climate risks communities may face and to then rebuild, or not, with those risks in mind. Here are some of the most effective ways to protect people and property from big storms in the era of global warming.
Better building codes
Even as Hurricane Ian ravaged parts of southwestern Florida, aerial photos taken Sept. 29 revealed that some homes in Punta Gorda, near where Ian first made landfall, had weathered the storm.
The area had been hit hard in 2004 by Hurricane Charley. Some homes likely fared better because they were rebuilt after Charley to comply with stringent statewide building codes, adopted largely in response to Hurricane Andrew, a powerful storm that flattened tens of thousands of buildings in south Miami-Dade County in 1992.
Modernized building codes can help make homes less likely to collapse. They often require structures to be built to withstand forceful winds, with hurricane-impact windows that can stand up to flying debris and with roofs that are secured tightly to prevent them from being pried off by the strongest gusts.
Codes can also be used to require that new or renovated homes and major transport networks to be elevated higher off the ground and to ensure that electrical systems and generators are protected by waterproof paneling and placed above basement or ground level.
However, there is a tendency for building codes to be overly standardized and prescriptive, Ganguly said. Rather than rigid rules, he said, building codes should be “performance-based,” so that architects and builders have the flexibility to choose from a variety of pathways to achieve storm safety goals.
Two kinds shoreline defense: gray and green
Experts say that rebuilding coastal communities in particular will require local leaders and city planners to strike a balance between investments in so-called gray infrastructure — things such as dams, levees, flood gates and sea walls — and green defenses such as wetlands, oyster reefs and mangrove forests.
In rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the city made extensive engineering improvements to infrastructure, using $14.5 billion to upgrade older levees and build a system of flood gates and barriers. When Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana in 2021, those flood protections seemed to work. Water from the storm did not push past any of the nearly 200 miles of flood barriers.
Yet future resilience will very likely require a combination of both hard and soft shoreline defenses, said Hiba Baroud, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University.
“Hard” structures may work in the short term, but they can worsen resiliency in the long term. For example, sea walls tend to contribute to coastal erosion.
Nature-based solutions, on the other hand, are “living and breathing,” Ganguly said, giving them the flexibility to respond to extreme weather events in a way that artificial structures cannot. Restoring coastal habitats can help buffer shorelines and lessen the effects of flooding by absorbing and slowing the flow of water, while also capturing and storing planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.
The expansive climate, health-care and tax bill signed into law by President Joe Biden this year includes a $2.6 billion investment in coastal communities over five years to help them prepare and respond to climate disasters, in part emphasizing nature-based solutions.
Equitable relocation, when necessary
Repeated disaster-and-rebuild cycles have prompted some communities to make a painful calculation about not just how to rebuild, but where and whether to rebuild at all. Across the country, officials are increasingly, though often reluctantly, relocating communities away from vulnerable areas in a controversial process known as managed retreat.
There are significant challenges associated with asking families, and sometimes entire neighborhoods, to relocate inland. “Retreat” is a word that signals defeat, something that’s hard to swallow for families that have lived in these areas for generations. Retreating from land may also threaten culture, traditions and a way of life for Native communities.
In some cases, implementing managed retreat can also be an inequitable process, particularly for low-income and minority homeowners who already have less financial protection to brace against climate risks. Federal programs to help Americans relocate away from disaster-prone areas gave more assistance to wealthier counties, a 2019 study revealed.
In cases where “we know an area is going to experience a high frequency and a high intensity of extreme weather events in the future,” Baroud said, it may be wiser, and less costly, to relocate communities and critical infrastructure, such as health care facilities, away from those areas.
Communities must factor in not only the monetary cost of repeated rebuilding in high risk areas, she said, but also the cost of the human suffering and the loss of life itself, which are “extremely difficult, if not impossible to quantify,” Baroud said.