By Reps. Scott Peters, Gerry Connolly, and Paul Tonko
As hurricane season begins and vulnerable coastal communities brace for high winds and storm surges, Congress needs to ask itself: What can we be doing to better protect and manage existing and new development along our coastlines?
How can we minimize the destruction of life and property suffered by so many in hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, Irene, and Sandy?
More than 123 million people--39 percent of our nation's population--live in communities hugging the nation's coastline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And the agency projects that the coastal population will continue to increase. Remedial efforts will provide some short-term fixes, but ultimately, Congress must step up and face the elephant in the room--our changing climate.
The White House recently declared the week of May 26 through June 1 National Hurricane Preparedness Week to encourage government agencies, private organizations, schools, and the media to more robustly disseminate information that can save lives and protect their communities. While hurricanes do not affect everyone, other types of weather events such as droughts, floods and wildfires do.
In the last two years, extreme weather events--weather episodes that caused at least $1 billion in damages--affected nearly 7 out of 10 Americans. Altogether, the extreme weather events of 2011 and 2012 totaled $188 billion in economic damages, including destruction of homes, suspension of business, and reductions to crop yields.
These weather events also took the lives of 1,107 people. Superstorm Sandy alone caused an estimated $50 billion in damages and forced more than 776,000 people to flee their homes. Regardless of whether or not you were living in an afflicted area, we all helped to lift these communities back onto their feet. The Federal government provided $136 billion in assistance, amounting to $1,160 per taxpayer.
Climate change will continue to increase the number of extreme weather events we will face as a nation. Carbon dioxide and super pollutants, the main drivers of climate change, have reached the highest levels in recorded human history. Congress needs to make a judgment call: Do we tackle the climate change problem now or continue to ignore the inevitable? The longer we wait, the higher the cost will be to the taxpayers and the health of the economy.
According to the insurance industry, 2012 was the second most expensive year for weather disasters. Yet, they only covered 25 percent of the total cost of the damages. The public--through the Federal government--ended up paying three times what private insurance paid. Addressing the problem now will save money and save lives. It's time for us to get serious about addressing our changing climate and there is no better time than the start of the hurricane season.
Reps. Tonko and Connolly are two of the three co-chairs and Rep. Peters is the Climate Task Force chair for the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), a group of 50 House members focused on promoting clean energy, protecting the environment and curbing the threat of climate change.