After the rescues are over, the long-term costs of Hurricane Harvey's recovery will bring the larger issue of disaster relief into the spotlight. Photo credit: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

When Hurricane Harvey finally pulled away from the Texas and Louisiana coast, clearing skies revealed a vast swath of communities inundated with cataclysmic levels of floodwater and unfathomable damage.

The human toll alone is staggering. At least 38 deaths have been reported and that number is almost certain to rise. More than 18,000 people were rescued from in southeast Texas and some in hard-hit Port Arthur are still waiting for help to arrive. At least 32,000 people are being housed in shelters and more than 210,000 people have already registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Harvey is the largest rainfall event ever recorded in the continental U.S., and experts are calling Harvey the worst flooding event in U.S. history. While assessments of Harvey’s monetary damages have just begun, some are saying it will become the most expensive storm in the country’s history—one made more expensive and more damaging by climate change.

Moody’s Analytics estimates the economic cost in Texas could be anywhere from $51 billion to $75 billion. Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather, thinks that figure will be far higher.

“The disaster is just beginning in certain areas,” said Myers, who said the economic impact could surpass $190 billion, roughly the costs of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined. “Parts of Houston, the United States’ fourth largest city will be uninhabitable for weeks and possibly months due to water damage, mold, disease-ridden water and all that will follow this 1,000-year flood.”

Whatever the final cost, much of that tab will be paid for by taxpayers through federal government allocations to the Disaster Relief Fund. That’s what funded the recovery from Katrina and Sandy, previously the two most expensive storms in U.S. history, but the process has grown increasingly political. Both of Texas’ Republican senators voted against the Sandy relief package, as did 23 of its 24 Republican congressmen, many falsely claiming the package was filled with funding for non-storm-related programs.

To further complicate matters, prior to Harvey, President Trump threatened to siphon nearly $1 billion from disaster funding to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border. While most agree that threat is now off the table, the Disaster Relief Fund still requires emergency supplemental funding from Congress.

“I think they’ll provide the funds,” said Gerald E. Galloway, professor of engineering at the Glenn L. Martin Institute at the University of Maryland, adding that he anticipates a great deal of political posturing before it’s all said and done.

“Congress is not going to leave people at risk or underwater,” Galloway said, but where the funds go and how much oversight Congress demands will be a key issue. He said allocations for Sandy were line-item issues that determined exactly which programs and which services were funded and he said some types of funding—such as community development block grants— get more scrutiny than they did after Sandy and Katrina.

And while there has been little appetite, particularly among Republicans, to tackle the issue of climate change in these disasters, many in Congress are increasingly reluctant to continue to fund rebuilding without disaster mitigation for future storm that are predicted to be increasingly damaging. Sandy’s relief package required that anyone rebuilding with federal aid must rebuild at least a foot higher to protect against future storm damage. President Obama issued an order in 2015 requiring all federal infrastructure take into account the known risks of climate change, including rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency of heavy rain events. Trump rescinded that order less than two weeks before Harvey hit, making it still possible to rebuild without taking into account anything learned from this disaster or others.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said an alternative solution would be to add incentives into the current funding models.

Typically, about 70 percent of disaster funding is paid for by the federal government and 30 percent by the state, with the state contribution sometimes waived. Schlegelmilch said that leaves states with no incentive to invest in disaster mitigation.

“If you know you’re going to get a 70 percent bailout, why shouldn’t you put this money into other things that your state needs,” Schlegelmilch said.

“One of the things proposed by FEMA is a disaster deductible. If you’ve made investments in hazard mitigation, into preventing disasters, then you can apply that toward the deductible,” said Schlegelmilch.

Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University told the Associated Press, “Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door.”

If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again,” Gerrard added.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is under fire for similar reasons: its low premiums and willingness to continue coverage even in the most flood-prone areas means the program has repeatedly paid claims on the same high-risk properties.

According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, Texas and Louisiana both have more than 10,000 repeatedly flooded properties and nationwide, the NFIP has paid out more than $12.5 billion on repeat claims.

In 32 years, one $69,000 home in Mississippi flooded 34 times for a whopping $663,000 in claims.

“There’s a lot of debate there on whether it’s subsidizing risk, whether it’s actually putting us in a position that we’re rebuilding in areas that are flood-prone,” said Schlegelmilch.

In the Houston area, only 1 of every 6 homeowners, about 17 percent, is enrolled in the NFIP, but claims on those policies could exceed $125 billion, a staggering amount that Congress will need to figure out how to fund. Those not enrolled in the NFIP will be left to rely on government grants and other funding if they hope to recover.

Without reauthorization, the NFIP, which has been in dire financial straits since Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the program in 2005, will expire on September 30. The debt was compounded by superstorm Sandy, the 2016 Louisiana floods and other recent disasters.

The program has already borrowed money from the U.S.Treasury and without authorization, it won’t be able to borrow the amount needed to pay claims on Harvey-related damages. Improvements to the NFIP could come with that authorization.

“Congress would be right to look on Harvey as a tragedy to overcome, but also an object lesson about the need and opportunity to address the NFIP’s basic but fixable flaws,” said Romany Webb, a climate law fellow at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in a recent post on the center’s website.

Along with that, comes an opportunity to better assess extreme weather risks.

“What we really need to do is recognize that we’ve lived in a system for many, many years and everybody assumes we know the probabilities of the floods and storms—and the world has been on an even keel,” said Galloway. “And we’ve seen in the last decade a tremendous change in that —these massive events that we haven’t seen before, and so I think we’re all going to be trying to adjust, and become more resilient and sustainable.”

Because of Harvey’s large area of impact, Galloway said recovery will be one of the most difficult this country has ever faced.  He said that despite growing research into climate change’s impact on weather, little has truly taken into account the possibility of such widespread devastation.

“We’ve not thought about the catastrophic events and more and more it’s coming to the point that we really ought to understand the complete spectrum of events that could take place and be prepared to identify what we’re going to do about it,” he said.

That, however, would require serious policy discussions about climate change, unlikely in an administration that pulled out of the Paris climate accord and has worked to roll back many of President Obama’s climate action policies.

But Harvey’s widening impacts might serve to open those discussions. Because Harvey hit at the core of the oil and gas industry, the flooding inundated many petrochemical facilities, with troubling environmental impacts already reported.  

“There’s so much infrastructure in these vulnerable areas you either have to spend a lot of money to shore up this infrastructure or move it,” said Schlegelmilch. “And of course, in this case being one of the causes of that vulnerability—it being the petrochemical industry—complicates that even more in terms of who should pay for it.”

Overall, he thinks the Trump administration is doing everything they need to do from a tactical perspective, if not a long-term policy one.

“But then when you step back and look at all the regulations they’ve unwound and all the cuts to preparedness funding they’ve proposed, it either creates or amplifies our vulnerability for events down the road,” said Schlegelmilch. “So I’m really hoping that there’s a moment of learning that comes from this and the administration takes it to heart.”