Governor Cuomo proposes action to reduce coastal flood risk

Hurricane Sandy inflicted tremendous damage on New York’s coastal communities.  The threat of more intense, more frequent storms driven by climate change has led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to propose limiting development in vulnerable locations. Just as Sandy provided a preview of future climate risks, the governor’s proposal may offer an example of one effective response.

The governor’s plan would use up to $400 million from the $50 billion in federal Sandy relief funds to buy damaged homes within flood plains from owners willing to sell. If the plan is approved, the damaged homes would be razed and further residential development would be prohibited, allowing the land to serve as a flood buffer.

Home buy-outs have been a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s program for Hazard Mitigation Assistance for several decades. For example, thousands of flood-prone properties in nearly 100 communities in Missouri have been purchased, potentially saving millions in damages. Following the devastation of Hurricane Ike in 2008, hundreds of vulnerable properties in Galveston, Texas, were purchased as part of the program.

Cuomo’s initiative represents a potentially large-scale application of the buy-out mechanism – 10,000 homes in the flood plain could be eligible for purchase by the state from willing homeowners.

An example of how future sea level rise will likely increase the flood risk in coastal areas of New York. Source: “Response to Climate Change in New York State,” Chapter 5

There are many ways coastal communities can strengthen their resilience  to severe storms and flooding. Some involve infrastructure, including raising homes on stilts or building sea walls, dikes, and flood barriers. Other “softer” options seek to enhance  the natural landscape’s ability to block or absorb flood waters. These include adding sand to beach dunes and protecting coastal wetlands.

The buy-out program is part of a larger strategy the governor outlined to enhance resilience. In his State of the State address, he also touted the potential that new technologies offer to fortify transportation and energy infrastructure. At the same time, the buy-out program can keep people and structures out of harm’s way, reducing future storm damages. And the buy-out properties would remain open space, affording upland residents a “soft” barrier against future floods.

The choice to buy out these homes may end up being a wise one. A disproportionately small number of flood-prone areas are frequent recipients of federal relief. Just 1 percent of properties insured under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) account for 25-30 percent of losses — costing the program $4.6 billion since 1978. As sea level continues to rise, coastal residents and public infrastructure are likely to be placed at even greater risk for damaging erosion, storm surge, and inundation.  Spending millions today may ultimately save homeowners and the government billions tomorrow.

Governor Cuomo appears to be heeding the “wake-up call” represented by the disruption and devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Should his plan be enacted and a significant number of homeowners participate, it could provide a valuable example of how land use incentives and policies can be applied to help us adapt to future extreme weather events and sea-level rise.