Local governments, builders, and realtors routinely mount fierce
opposition to changes in flood maps that indicate higher hazard (and hence higher flood premiums, stronger mitigation
requirements, and/or limits on construction). Some members
of Congress—particularly those from inland districts and fiscal
conservatives—decry huge program deficits. It will be impossible to maintain current premiums, coverage, and eligibility
without severe limits on building, strong mitigation requirements, or exposure to enormous program losses. Something
has to give.
The Corps was sharply criticized following Katrina for the fail-
ure of levees and other defenses in New Orleans. It was subject
to numerous lawsuits and avoided paying billions of dollars in
damages only because the Federal Tort Claims Act sheltered
it from liability. In 2013 Federal Judge Stanwell Duval wrote:
I feel obligated to note that the bureaucratic behemoth that
is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable
to the citizens it protects despite the Federal Tort Claims
Act. The public will very possibly be more jeopardized by a
lack of accountability than a rare judgment granting relief.
The untold billions of dollars of damage incurred by the
greater New Orleans area as a result of the levee failures
during Katrina speak eloquently to that point.
The Corps itself acknowledged catastrophic failure when it
issued a 6,000-page report titled “Performance Evaluation of
the New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Protection System” in 2006. The report described “a disjointed system
of levees, inconsistent in quality, materials and design, that left
gaps exploited by the storm.” It went on to note that engineers
failed to consider poor soil quality underneath New Orleans and
did not allow for land subsidence.
Over several years the Corps spent billions on bolstering
New Orleans’ defenses, including a $14.3 billion project called
“Defense in Depth,” completed in 2011.
Following Sandy the Corps completed 25 huge emergency
beach repair projects, the largest repair and restoration effort
in its history. The Corps moved 26 million cubic yards of sand
onto beaches from Rhode Island to Virginia over two years at a
cost of $455 million.
This is but one of many post-Sandy projects that illustrate
the significant scope of Corps activities in coastal defense. Other
post-Sandy projects included 30 undertakings to repair damaged
navigation channels, others to “unwater” 475 million gallons of
saltwater from critical infrastructure in New York City, one to
install over 200 generators in critical facilities such as hospitals,
another to return ports to operation, another to distribute 9 million liters of bottled water, and over 200 others to “reduce risk.”
In press releases the Corps boasts that all of these are “100%
federally funded.” While the author was unable to determine the
total cost of Corps activities following Sandy, the amounts were
substantial and required emergency appropriations.
History is full of examples of societies ignoring warnings of
looming problems with catastrophic consequences. A useful
example relevant to this discussion involves the “Hurricane
Pam” exercise held in 2004 by FEMA with the cooperation of
the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, and other government agencies.
The exercise simulated the effects of a strong hurricane
making landfall near New Orleans. A 2004 press release on the
BATON ROUGE, La.—Hurricane Pam brought sustained
winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of
southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees
in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents
evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000
buildings. Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal
and volunteer organizations faced this scenario during a
five-day exercise held this week at the State Emergency
Operations Center in Baton Rouge.
Unfortunately, the key finding of the exercise—that the nation was woefully unprepared for a hurricane hitting near New
Orleans—was not acted upon other than to create contingency
plans for emergency response. Less than a year later Hurricane
Katrina tore through the area and generated losses bearing an
uncanny similarity to those simulated in the Hurricane Pam exercise. No one should have been surprised by Katrina.
This failure was well documented in a 2006 special report to
Congress titled “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.”
The report’s preface notes that “All of this happened … after a
closely observed hurricane struck when and where forecasters said it would. … We knew Katrina was coming. … Hurricane
Sandy also created more surprise than it should have. According to Moody’s Analytics, direct storm losses totalled more
than $30 billion, with another $20 billion of lost business activity. While the timing of the storm (in late October) and its track
were unusual, the exposure of the New Jersey shore and New
York City to severe loss from a tropical system is well understood, particularly with regard to flood.
Parts of the New Jersey shore have experienced serious
beach erosion in recent decades, with winter storms causing significant damage requiring expensive beach renourishment. The
bathymetry (underwater topography) of Long Island Sound and
New York City make a flooding event likely when large storms
push water from the ocean westward toward the coast.
As with Katrina, discussions of the exposure and how to
mitigate it occurred well before the storm. Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Stony Brook Storm Research Group was
formed to study New York’s vulnerability to coastal flooding.
The city’s Vision 2020 plan includes a section on climate resilience and coastal protection strategies. At the American Society
of Civil Engineers meeting in 2009, several engineering firms