Aerial view of homes submerged after Hurricane Floyd struck Princeville, N.C., in 1999 . Photo: Joe Skipper / Reuters

Floodwaters engulf street signs in Princeville, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew. Photo: Jonathan Drake / Reuters

By Kevin Sack and John Schwartz
8 October 2018

DAVANT, Louisiana (The New York Times) – In the exact spot where Hurricane Katrina demolished the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, a new $105 million jail now hovers 19 feet above the marsh, perched atop towering concrete pillars. Described by a state official as the “Taj Mahal” of Louisiana corrections, it has so much space that one of every 27 parish residents could bunk there.

But on an average day in the first half of this year, more than 40 percent of its 872 beds went unoccupied, making it one of the emptiest jails in the state, records show. And because of its isolated, flood-prone location, the jail still must be evacuated before any major storm or risk becoming an accidental Alcatraz.

There is but one reason the Plaquemines jail was rebuilt on endangered land, with needless capacity, at immense cost: The sheriff wanted it that way. But unlike most new jail construction, his project did not have to be financed through bond sales or other local revenues, with voters able to hold him accountable. Rather, because the old jail was destroyed by a natural disaster, the cost was covered by federal taxpayers, through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that is required by law to distribute billions in aid but exerts little control over how the money is spent.

FEMA’s public assistance program has provided at least $81 billion in this manner to state, territorial and local governments in response to disasters declared since 1992, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. But an examination of projects across the country’s ever-expanding flood zones reveals that decisions to rebuild in place, often made seemingly in defiance of climate change, have at times left structures just as defenseless against the next storm.

Other efforts have required enormously expensive engineering to ensure protection. Yet in some instances, restrictions on construction in flood plains have effectively prohibited FEMA from safeguarding its multimillion-dollar investments in new and repaired public buildings.

One of every five public assistance dollars has streamed here to this quintessentially vulnerable place, Louisiana — by far the most per capita of any state. But billions more will soon flow from Washington to the states and territories devastated by the ferocity of the past two hurricane seasons. Last year, estimated to be the costliest ever with $306.2 billion in damage, saw back-to-back assaults by Harvey on Texas, Irma on Florida, Maria on Puerto Rico, and Nate on Mississippi. Last month, Florence submerged the Carolinas, damaging public structures ranging from a high school in Jacksonville, N.C., to the town hall in North Topsail Beach. […]

“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who directs the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, a research consortium funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.” […]

Aerial view of homes and fields in Plaquemines Parish that were flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Scott Saltzman / Bloomberg / Getty Images

With local officials often incentivized to replicate the past, experts in disaster relief say changes in federal law and regulations may be needed to reorient the system to reflect climate realities.

Yet the Trump administration, if anything, is moving in the opposite direction. In August last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, that had meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Then in March, FEMA released a four-year strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise.

Despite repeated requests over five months, FEMA’s public affairs office declined to make the agency’s embattled administrator, Brock Long, or other top policymakers available for comment. Mr. Long has come under fire recently for using government vehicles for personal travel, and FEMA has been heavily criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria, which Puerto Rico estimates took nearly 3,000 lives.

The Trump administration’s approach on climate change ignores loud warnings from government agencies about the budgetary threat it poses. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office projected in 2016, for instance, that hurricane damage would “increase significantly in the coming decades because of the effects of climate change and coastal development.” As a result, government spending for relief and recovery will outpace economic growth and devour an ever larger share of gross domestic product, the analysts concluded.

“You can’t continue this with the pace and intensity of events we’ve seen today,” said James Lee Witt, who led FEMA throughout the Clinton administration. “Somebody has got to break the cycle of damage, repair, damage, repair.” [more]

As Storms Keep Coming, FEMA Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair

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