Is it a mistake to rebuild in climate danger zones?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the wake of major disasters like Hurricane Ian, which devastated large swaths of the Florida coast and caused at least 84 deaths last week, the goal of rebuilding what was lost often becomes a unifying mission for local residents and the country as a whole.

Both President Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are on opposite sides of most issues, spoke recently of the enormous task that lies ahead if communities that experienced the worst wind damage and flooding are going to be revived. Their statements echo sentiments from political leaders after other disasters, including previous hurricanes, major storms elsewhere in the country and wildfires in Western states.

With climate change increasing the severity of hurricanes and wildfires, among other natural disasters, the sheer scale of rebuilding efforts has become enormous. Hurricane Ian alone is believed to have caused as much as $57 billion in damages, according to an estimate from the risk management firm Verisk. Since 1980 there have been more than 330 weather and climate disasters that each have caused more than $1 billion in damages, according to a database maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The costs are only getting bigger. In the 1980s, weather-related damages averaged about $20 billion per year. Over the past five years, that figure has reached almost $158 billion a year.

The escalating costs — let alone the extraordinary logistical and human challenges — of reviving communities after these increasingly common events has led many experts to raise an uncomfortable question: Should we rebuild in places that face a high risk of being destroyed again by a climate-fueled disaster in the near future?

Why there’s debate

Though they universally express sympathy for people who would be asked to abandon their homes for good, a number of experts say that it’s simply not feasible to keep pouring resources into communities that are directly in the likely path of future hurricanes and wildfires. They argue that people in these areas must stop treating major disasters as random events and instead accept the reality that climate change has made more catastrophic weather all but inevitable.

But others say this attitude raises incredibly difficult questions that we’re nowhere close to having clear answers for. Chief among them, they say, is the problem of deciding which communities aren’t worth reviving and which ones deserve saving. People from those areas, many of whom are frequently facing desperate financial circumstances, will also need somewhere else to go that satisfies their needs and sets them up for long-term success — some small-scale efforts to do this in California fire regions have proved expensive and politically contentious.

These issues are why many experts argue that the work of preventing people from living in climate danger zones should be done before disaster strikes, rather than in the aftermath.

In recent years, millions of people have moved to areas that face elevated risk from hurricanes and fires, essentially deciding that natural beauty and comparatively low cost of living in those communities outweigh the — often poorly understood — risks of disaster. Experts say it’s possible to change that calculus and make these areas less desirable by levying climate-risk taxes on properties, forcing real estate agents and developers to disclose fire and flooding dangers to potential buyers and providing financial incentives to those who are willing to move to safer places.


It’s wasteful and dangerous to keep rebuilding communities that will likely be destroyed again

“The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over — building and rebuilding in areas we know are deadly — with the same result: destruction.” — Anita Chabria and Erika D. Smith, Los Angeles Times

Refusing to help communities rebuild will leave countless people with nowhere to go

“It’s easy for people in other parts of the country to say we shouldn’t rebuild in areas most vulnerable to storms, but if not, how could or should those people be compensated? Again, someone has to pay that bill.” — Editorial, Miami Herald

If we’re going to rebuild, we must rebuild smarter

“Around the world, weather is becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable, with bigger, more destructive storms and increased vulnerability to high heat and other perils. [DeSantis] should also force the acknowledgement that as sea levels rise, flooding will emerge as the No. 1 threat to lives and property in Florida. Any reconstruction along the coast must consider the inevitability that sooner or later, the invading sea will prevail.” — Editorial, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Moving people out of danger zones will be an enormous task, but the alternative is far worse

“Nothing about changing the way we develop our coastlines would be easy, but nothing about the way we allow it makes sense given what we know is a growing danger of more severe storms ahead.” — Al Tompkins, Poynter

We can’t ask people not to rebuild until we have a real system to help them relocate

“There are probably areas that we simply shouldn’t put any infrastructure back in. But it’s really difficult to make that call after an emergency when everybody’s just trying to make themselves whole again. … We just don’t have the right kinds of incentives or disincentives to change that economic calculus yet—anywhere, not just in Florida.” — Rob Young, geologist, to Wired

At the very least, every potential resident should be forced to acknowledge the risks they’re taking on

“If every Realtor was required to tell people, ‘You should know over the period of your mortgage your home will flood at least once, maybe twice,’ I think people would go, 'Whoa, what?’ But due to policy failures in state capitals and in Washington we have made it extremely difficult for people to not only find that information but to even tell people about it.” — Rob Moore, environmental policy analyst, to Washington Post

Choosing to live in high-risk areas should come with extra costs

“The best policy when an activity imposes costs on society is to create a pricing system that pushes those costs back onto the individuals responsible. … In the case of disaster zones, municipal property taxes need to reflect the additional costs of public services like disaster relief that are often provided by state and federal authorities. … The key thing is that the tax creates a disincentive to engage in the undesirable activity short of an outright ban. And research shows these kinds of taxes are effective.” — Alexander Smith, Conversation

We need the money we’re wasting on rebuilding to fortify other communities against climate disasters

“We should walk away from the most vulnerable areas of our oceanfront and spend the money saved on buttressing the more sustainable parts of the community. We should be demanding this approach in the allocation of federal funds. This is not about abandoning the coastal economy. This is how we preserve it.” — Robert S. Young, New York Times

Climate disasters aren’t random, and we should stop pretending they are

“Our disaster management system was based on a premise that disasters were random and rare. That is no longer true, but we still pay people to return to where they were before. … Our disaster management system is not sustainable. I know it is hard to address after a tragic disaster. But, as a government policy, we continue to [incentivize] risk, though the devil returns again and again.” — Juliette Kayyem, CNN analyst

Nothing will stop people from choosing to live in places that are destined for disaster

“The way things ought to be is not always the way things are. Sunshine, low taxes, and freedom from consequences can be a compelling vision, especially for the old and cold, and it’s working for Florida’s Republicans just as it worked for Cape Coral’s developers. … The Florida growth machine has outlasted a lot of killer storms, and it will outlast this one too. We ignored what was coming, and we’ll forget what came.” — Michael Grunwald, Atlantic

Mass climate migration is inevitable, but we can choose whether it’s an orderly process or chaos

“In the next few decades, millions of Americans whose cities may literally fall into the ocean will need to relocate inland. … And although it might seem like an extreme idea, the fact is that we are already doing it — just in a way that’s reactive, expensive and unsustainable as the problem gets larger. Rather than bumbling ahead and dodging this question at public forums, it’s time to develop proactive, sustainable and equitable policies for moving people out of harm’s way.” — Yuliya Panfil, Politico

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images, Getty Images