Warmer ocean temperatures, hurricanes, billion-dollar floods and so called “100-year storms” have become more common in coastal regions of the U.S. Texas has experienced some of the most catastrophic storms in recent decades, including Hurricanes Ike and Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda.
When natural disasters occur, the response has always been to rebuild, using more resilient barriers. But funding for these projects can cost billions of dollars, provided by taxpayers.
Gilbert Gaul is a two time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. His new book “The Geography of Risk” addresses the economic and environmental risks of rebuilding America’s coasts.
“There are a lot of people who are expecting a different result,” Gaul says. “They’re in denial about what happens at the coast despite the fact that in the last two decades we’ve had over 20 major hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast and they’ve caused $723 billion worth of damage, much of which has been rebuilt with federal tax dollars.”
During the past 60 years, about $3 trillion worth of development, mostly consisting of vacation homes, has been built along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Gaul says. This has created an expectation that the government will rebuild private property when natural disasters hit the coast.
“We’ve turned our empathy for people in these storms into a huge government entitlement program to to rescue us from our own mistakes at the coast,” Gaul says. “ And now it only gets Amplified with climate change with rising sea levels, with bigger different kinds of storms like Harvey.”
In Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Gregg Abbott have backed the proposed Ike Dike, am expensive coastal barrier running from Rockport to the Houston Ship Channel that would protect the oil refineries along the Port of Houston from another catastrophic storm.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Gaul says. “But the politicians have taken that and they’ve expanded the idea wildly to the point that it would cost at least $32 billion to build. It would be funded by federal taxpayers, and they’re claiming that it would protect Houston from the kind of damages that occurred in Harvey, which is absolutely wrong.”
Gaul says that what happened during Hurricane Harvey was one of five 500-year storms that have hit Houston in the past decade. He says the cause of these storms is climate change, and there will be more like it in the future.
“Harvey was a rain bomb,” Gaul says. “Those things are due to the warming atmosphere. That heat gets translated into warmer ocean temperatures that get sucked up by these storms that stall out at the coast and then just dump Biblical amounts of rain on these places that never should have been built where they were. That’s not going to get fixed.”
Written by Antonio Cueto.