On the Money

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey may be a 'wake-up call' for vulnerable cities, and local zoning laws: Expert

Beth Corsentino
Hurricane lessons
Hurricane lessons

The numbers are mind boggling.

Collective estimates for the damage caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma are upwards of $200 billion. According to Paul Walsh, director of weather strategy and a business meteorologist for IBM's Global Business Services, that's half the total cost of damage caused by all hurricanes over the past 50 years.

Part of the reason for the high price tag is more people moving into "at risk" areas. In Florida alone, more than 5 million people evacuated their homes.

"Whether or not they are able to rebuild I think is a question" Walsh told CNBC's "On the Money" recently. He said that given the devastation from these storms, zoning standards for rebuilding may need to change.

"I think there has to be a lot of thought put into how we, sort of, zone and where people should be building," Walsh said, pointing to the flooding in Houston. He believes the way the city was laid out contributed to the damage, as Houston is the only major U.S. city without zoning.

Walsh added that the hurricane "is going to be a bit of a wake-up call in terms of the way we develop our communities going forward, especially along the coastal areas."

Damaged sail boats are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on September 11, 2017 in Key West, Florida.
Getty Images

Walsh also believed the National Flood Insurance Program may need to be restructured, because it basically enables people to live in places that get flooded. Just last week, the agency made changes to make it easier for homeowners to tap NFIP funds – which are already running low because of Harvey.

However, many homes enrolled in the program have been rebuilt more than once. Last week, the Wall Street Journal featured a story on a home in Texas that has flooded 22 times since 1979. The report also noted that the NFIP paid out more than $1.8 million just to rebuild the house.

"There are more of us living in areas that are more exposed to potentially higher impact storms over the next, end number of years," Walsh said. However, he was encouraged at how much accurate forecasts are getting and allowing communities to better prepare.

Right now, the economy in many of the areas affected by Harvey and Irma are completely stalled. Eventually, government assistance and insurance money will begin to flow into Florida and Texas, helping to bring jobs, revenue and infrastructure repairs and updates.

However, this may not be the end of it: Hurricane season runs until November 30 — with eyes nervously watching a storm called Jose forming in the Atlantic.

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