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Florence Has Forced Many to Reconsider What it Takes to Improve Resilience

A new report on the new realities of severe weather resilience, Hurricane Florence: Building resilience for the new normal, looks in detail at the floods and the consequences that resulted from 2018’s Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

The study focuses on opportunities, examines successes, and reveals learnings from the event. It was written in collaboration with Zurich North America, Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, and ISET-International.

“Despite the double hit of Matthew and then Florence, along with an extremely active though not directly damaging to North Carolina hurricane season in 2017, people and businesses are missing an opportunity to improve their resilience,” said Paul Lavelle, chief claims officer of Zurich North America. “The trends are clear – natural hazards are getting worse. Now is a key window of opportunity with the recovery still ongoing in many communities to take action and reduce future risk.”

Key Findings

Weather events are changing in nature and sea levels have visibly risen
In North Carolina and elsewhere, climate has visibly changed, sea levels have visibly risen, and these trends are likely to continue. Given that extreme events will become potentially more frequent and more severe, communities and states should take steps to learn from past events and implement key insights as part of their recovery and development to mitigate areas of known risk.

Economic motivators can be used as levers for both action and inaction
In many industries, proven technology exists to address environmental damages and in many cases regulations are on the books requiring action or punitive fines and taxes. Additionally, public opinion is increasingly turning against industries and organizations that aren’t taking steps to become more resilient and environmentally responsible. As acute weather events become more common, delaying action will damage reputations and impact profits.

“In the face of this increasing risk, it is critical to learn from events such as Florence, to minimize the damages and streamline the response and recovery for the next storm,” said Lavelle. “Communities can no longer afford business as usual, quite literally. The growing economic and human cost of these events requires that we not only change how we respond, but also do so far more quickly than we have in the past.”

Floods contribute to marginalizing vulnerable communities
Shortened recovery time and limited recovery support from various authorities exacerbates disparities in recovery between higher income households compared to their lower-income, resource scarce neighbors. Communities that are better resourced and insured recover and rebuild faster, and more likely in time for the next storm, than those communities with less resources and insurance coverage. In many hard-hit properties in Wilmington, North Carolina were inexpensive apartments in low-lying parts of town. In the hot, humid aftermath of the storm, water-damaged properties rapidly started to mold and landlords began issuing lease termination notices, sparking an unexpected wave of sheltering demands a week to 10 days after the storm.

The Saffir-Simpson Scale is not sufficient to explain hurricane consequences
The Saffir-Simpson scale used to characterize hurricane strength is proving increasingly inadequate as a way to describe to the general public the risk posed by a hurricane. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are terrifyingly destructive storms and should clearly be acknowledged as such. But large, wet, slow Category 1 and Tropical storms like Hurricanes Harvey and Florence that result in torrential rainfall and flooding can be just as destructive and deadly.

Shift from siloed interventions to a holistic approach
Like the key findings, recommendations contained in the report bring together the numerous themes that have the power to impact a community’s resilience during extreme weather events. Rather than solely addressing issues in isolation, communities and government officials should work holistically to assess and address systemic issues.

“As floods events become more intense and more frequent, we need to be more proactive,” said Dr. Karen MacClune, executive director of ISET-International. “Yet our resources remain finite. This means we need to more effectively use the resources we have. A key way to do that is through coordination and collaboration. Most of those who are leading on resilience are doing so by building active, diverse networks focused on common goals.”

Now is the time to act on building in community-level resilience
Research from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance has shown that community-level resilience-building projects avoid, on average, five dollars of losses for every dollar spent up front. A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS)1 conducted on available data in the United States found cost-benefit ranges of 1:4 up to 1:12, and for flooding specifically ranging from 1:5 up to 1:8 – solid numbers highlighting that investing early in resilience building pays off.

“I’ve seen firsthand how resilient people and businesses can be – able to overcome and persevere through some of the most devastating experiences. However, it usually takes a trailblazer to insist on change and build back better or develop something innovative and new,” said Lavelle.

Critically assess where all stakeholders chose to build
Coastal counties, Charlotte, and the Triangle area saw2 an increase in the population in the floodplain from 2000-2016. That, coupled with the increase in hurricane intensity, means that without change in awareness, preparedness, and risk reduction, the social and economic impacts of major natural hazard events will continue to increase.

And yet, policy and regulatory decisions that fail to discourage development in highly exposed areas are resulting in increased flood risk throughout the state. The report calls on developments to be more intentional about where to build, how to build, and in managing expectations for how communities will live within and interact with the environment to stay safe.

Insurance plays an important role in resilience
Flood insurance is critical to recovery as households and businesses with insurance fare better than those without. In the face of known flood risk, insurance should be one of a suite of actions. However, insurance can only go so far if it is not coupled with other preventative/risk reduction measures.

The report’s key findings revolve around a variety of human, social, economic and political themes. Society continues to support and subsidize investment and unprotected development in high-risk areas such as exposed coasts and river inlets. Insurance that does not accurately price for risk exacerbates the problem.

This new report on Florence is Zurich’s 14th post-event review of a severe weather event. The lessons learned and recommendations outlined in the report are part of a wider series of post-event reviews, using the Post Event Review Capability (PERC) methodology, which the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance has been conducting since 2013. Post-event reviews generate actionable recommendations for reducing future damages.

Hurricane Florence: Building resilience for the new normal can be downloaded here.

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