Sandy, Global Warming and the Peninsula

Floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States and over 5 million households have flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. National Flood Insurance Program statistics suggest that 25 percent of flood claims come from people in low- or moderate-risk areas and in 2011 New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania were the top three states for these claims.  With hurricane Sandy creating a huge number of claims, we can expect a similar ranking for 2012.

Hurricane Sandy that hit the east coast at the end of 2012 has opened a number of questions that are of importance to folks here on the Peninsula. First, there are questions about the contribution to Sandy’s devastation made by global warming and rising sea levels.  Second is whether the National Flood Insurance Program is a good idea for taxpayers – and perhaps by extension, while it is available should you consider it.  These questions are of great interest to those of us who live here because there are significant parts of the Peninsula that are exposed no to the potential for flooding and, with the continuation of rising sea levels, the number of exposed areas will rise significantly.

At present, for example, downtown Port Townsend is in a special high risk flood area and premiums for flood insurance are a multiple of costs for downtown Sequim which is in a moderate risk area.  Changes in the sea level in Puget Sound could add new areas to the high risk category and create other issues as well.  A report by the State Department of Ecology identified the following problems arising from rising sea levels:  

* coastal community flooding
* coastal erosion and landslides
* seawater well intrusion, and
* Lost wetlands and estuaries.

Certainly Port Townsend downtown and parts of Port Angeles would face serious risk of flooding with a rising sea level.  A number of our coastal residential areas here are situated on bluffs that could be adversely affected by erosion and landslides.  Shell fishing and our local shellfish industry could be severely compromised if the sea levels rose sufficiently and likely no one knows at present what the impact of rising sea levels might be on the Hood Canal. 

While here in Washington we don’t typically have the same types of storms as the hurricanes that affect the east and gulf coasts, we do have serious storms.  King Tides which happen regularly here could be compounded by rising sea levels and high winds in a disaster scenario as anyone who has walked area beaches recently might be able to testify.  . 

As politicians and ordinary taxpayers are looking at the record of the National Flood Insurance Program, there is some concern that we may be encouraging risk taking behavior where it should not exist.  The national program came into existence in the late 1960’s when insurers became increasingly unwilling to underwrite flood insurance.  While the program has helped to spread the risk over a wider pool of people, it has also had the effect of allowing people to build or remain in high risk areas without fully accepting the risk.  At present, the National Flood Insurance Program is trying to recover from the deficit caused by floods in 2005; Sandy is likely to add greatly to that deficit.  We will have to watch in coming years whether the federal government will continue to support the program and, if so, whether premiums will remain affordable as they rebuild reserves. 

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