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Big plan needed to save US coastal cities: Report

Despite a spate of death and destruction from natural disasters in recent years, the U.S. lacks a national plan to save its coastal cities—and it needs one now, according to a new report.

A woman walks with her dog by homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy along the beach in the Rockaways on January 15, 2013 in New York City.
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The report, spearheaded by the National Research Council, urges a strategy of increased cooperation among government agencies to be "proactive" for events such as hurricanes and rising sea levels. That's as more people move into hazardous areas along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast.

"The report is a warning that it's imperative we do something on a national level," said Rachel Cleetus, a senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We just go back after a storm and build the same way as before, and we can't keep doing that."

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The report cites how the lack of planning plays out financially. Between 2008 and 2012, $493 million was appropriated by the federal government for coastal protection efforts. However, at least $12.8 billion in emergency funding was allocated during the same time for recovery—after storms like Hurricane Sandy and Irene.

"A lot of preventative efforts just lack money," said Marc Roy, a professor of disaster management at Tulane University in New Orleans. 'We have to see that the benefits of long-term planning out weigh the costs."

The report was commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which is largely responsible for flood protection and coastal risk management in the U.S.

But other entities such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—along with state and local government groups—have various related responsibilities in areas such as zoning laws, building codes and flood insurance policies.

The USACE has no authority to initiate a national analysis of coastal risk or to implement any strategies.

Besides getting all the various groups on the same page, the report calls for greater assessment on risk factors in order to help reduce the impact of rising tides or a severe weather event. That could mean stronger building codes, reduced development in coastal areas, or higher flood insurance premiums, while constructing more man-made and natural barriers to blunt the effect of a storm.

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Or it means avoiding flood-prone areas altogether.

"We have to consider just not building in areas that are high-risk," said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst for the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Moore said that since 1980, there have been 151 severe weather events along U.S. coastal areas, each resulting in at least $1 billion in damages. It would be better, he said if money like that could be used to help people relocate from the dangerous areas.


Investing in climate change
Investing in climate change

A bill to increase flood insurance premiums, the Biggert-Waters Act, became law in 2012 to help fund FEMA's over-stretched budget, while putting more of a financial risk factor on some residents and businesses in flood zones.

But a public outcry from homeowners in flood- and hurricane-prone states like Louisiana pushed back some of the premium hikes. There are still efforts to get the premiums lower.

However, NRDC's Moore said the bill would still have a positive impact by getting people to think twice about living in coastal and flood zone areas. Premiums remain higher for second homes and those properties that suffer continual damage, said Moore.

But Tulane's Roy wasn't so sure.

"Biggert-Waters is flawed and hurts people who can't afford the premiums," Roy said.

Getting ahead of 'disaster curve'

A national plan of sorts may be in the works.

President Barack Obama announced several initiatives last week designed to bolster the nation's infrastructure through the White House Climate Change Task Force on Resilience and Preparedness.

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One requirement is for states to consider the dangers of "climate variability" in plans they must submit to FEMA, in order to receive disaster aid. That includes plans for flooding and sea level rises.

"It's a good start," said NRDC's Moore. "Right now, the federal government picks up 60 percent of the costs of disasters. This will make states rethink their local development plans in a different way if they have to pay more."

Union of Concerned Scientists' Cleetus said that several states including Louisiana, Florida, New York and New Jersey, are thinking differently now after Hurricanes Sandy, Irene and Katrina left them devastated. But it still comes down to one national plan to get ahead of the "disaster curve," she said.

"Congress and all areas of government need to step up on this," she argued.

By CNBC's Mark Koba