Witnessing the aftermath of hurricanes or coastal flooding disasters in this country, I’ll admit to mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I naturally empathize with Americans who have lost everything.  But a part of me asks, “how many times will we pay to rebuild the infrastructure in regions prone to these storms?”

Add in the expected increased frequency and intensity of such storms as a result of climate change, and now, I feel a little less guilty because I’m not the only person asking that question.

The Georgetown Climate Center recently published a comprehensive review of certain federal disaster relief programs called “Preparing Our Communities for Climate Impacts: Recommendations for Federal Action.”  In addition to many common sense suggestions for better coordination and planning between federal agencies, the report confronts a serious impediment to making our infrastructure more resilient to future storms.

Many federal disaster relief programs have mandated that the “new” structure be built in exactly the same footprint (or as close as possible) as the damaged facility.  As a result, planning for and building facilities that have a chance of withstanding the next disaster have actually been discouraged.  The Georgetown Report properly says that such practices must be reformed.

I sat on the Department of Transportation’s “Superstorm Sandy Task Force,” where we debated these very issues.  For years, the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief (“ER”) Manual discussed the concept of “betterments,” designs that improved a damaged highway or bridge – not simply replaced them. States needed to get prior approval from the FHWA before spending disaster aid on betterments.  The rationale made sense – the government didn’t want precious relief funding (aimed at reopening damaged facilities as quickly as possible) spent on expanded facilities, and certainly not without adequate planning or notice.

After Sandy, that thinking changed.  Former Secretary LaHood made it clear to senior staff that he would not approve ER funding unless he was convinced that the rebuilt facility could withstand “the next Sandy.”

“That’s easier said than done,” I replied at one Task Force meeting.  (Silence in the room.)  I explained (carefully) that cost estimates for a higher bridge, for example, could increase, sometimes significantly.  Moreover, a hypothetical higher bridge often times created a much larger footprint, implicating environmental issues such as wetlands or species habitat impacts.

The Secretary politely said that he understood, but his position remained firm.  He felt it was a waste of taxpayer money to pay for a new bridge that would just have to be rebuilt after the next severe storm.

The Georgetown Climate Center has done the public a great service by addressing some of these realities head-on.  Adaptation and resiliency have a cost.  Is it one we are willing to pay?