Driving home from the beach a few weeks ago, I listened to a guest on NPR assert that most of the damage from Hurricane Ian was insured, implying, I imagined, that homeowners would rebuild without too much trouble.
Wait, I thought, that’s not right.
Many homeowners in the affected areas were under-insured or had no insurance at all. They were going to have to rebuild on their own dime or more likely rely on federal disaster aid.
How did I know this?
The insurance data are in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public online files, which I have been using for years while writing about risky coastal development. If I need to know how many properties in a disaster zone have flood insurance, I simply type in the name of the community and begin sorting through an array of valuable data. The files are one of the tools reporters can and should use to cover hurricanes and floods, yet too often are overlooked, resulting in superficial narratives of natural disasters as extraordinary events as opposed to increasingly common, man-made tragedies.
I don’t know why the guest said what he did. Maybe he skipped a beat. It happens in interviews. More likely, he was uninformed and didn’t know about the FEMA files. After all, coverage of major disasters is often done on the fly, with reporters scrambling to find victims to put on television, radio, or in the newspapers. Despite a dramatic uptick in the damage caused by major hurricanes in the last two decades — there have been six Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to hit the Gulf Coast alone since 2017 — and the discussions around sea level rise, warming oceans, and climate change, few media outlets appear to have disaster coverage plans, let alone serious plans that look at land use, zoning, or risk.
As a nation, we can’t afford to continue like this.
Since 2000 alone, hurricanes have accounted for more than $1 trillion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s cost estimate. Payments from the National Flood Insurance Program have soared to over $40 billion in the same period, effectively bleeding the program dry. Clearly, we have a problem on the coasts, which is to say we have filled some of the most dangerous geography in America with risky, taxpayer-subsidized development, and now call it a natural disaster when hurricanes rip apart the shores.
Robert S. Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University who studies developed shorelines, recently wrote that we are overdue for a national conversation about the dollars we spend rebuilding coastal communities in harm’s way.
To that, I will add, the media and journalism schools are also long overdue for a conversation about how we cover disasters.
If I were teaching a course on disaster journalism, here are a few of the suggestions I would have. First, not every reporter needs to be in the field looking for tragic narratives about survivors. We need those stories, sure; it is important to emphasize empathy. But all too often the stories feel reflexive and waste limited time and resources that could be spent on deeper reporting that gets at the root causes of coastal disasters, especially land use choices, which rarely are covered until it’s too late.
Most decisions about where to put a house or a business are made locally by politicians who depend on developers for campaign cash and to help grow their communities. Many of those realtors and builders also sit on the land use boards that decide what gets built where. In a 2017 Politico Magazine story, Michael Grunwald lays out how this dynamic unfolded in Cape Coral, Florida, a city that “never could have emerged from the swamp under today’s environmental rules.”
Reporters should also have copies of state and county hazard mitigation plans within easy reach. These voluminous documents are a rich trove of data on everything from population and development trends to the number of properties in the 100-year floodplain to flood insurance and the historic damage from hurricanes and floods. The reports are usually online, as is the one for Lee County, Florida, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ian.
It’s likewise important to follow the data on flood insurance and relief money. A lot of reporters have little or no training in math, statistics, or probability and avoid stories with numbers. But there are university professors and flood specialists at the county and state level who will happily teach you the basics. There are endless story possibilities, including examining the divide between wealthy property owners able to afford flood insurance and poorer residents unable to afford insurance. As Thomas Frank of Politico reported in May, “FEMA has allocated billions of dollars of flood-mitigation money using a racially inequitable system that has favored saving flood-prone houses in rich areas or in communities that are almost entirely white.” Frank came to the conclusion by studying “tens of thousands of grant records” and reviewing government documents and property records.
FEMA awards billions in grants to coastal communities after hurricanes through its Public Assistance Program, but relatively little money to move homeowners out of harm’s way. The grants — which include everything from repairing streets, utilities, bridges, parks, recreation centers, garbage cans, streetlights, and pickleball courts — effectively subsidize building in harm’s way. In theory, the affected communities are supposed to contribute a share of the cost. However, politicians often lobby for relief and vote-sensitive presidents agree to waive the local share, federalizing the risk. President Biden recently stressed that the federal government would pay for 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding after Ian.
FEMA has a public database for the grants, but be warned that it is unwieldy. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also awards billions in housing grants after coastal disasters and the Small Business Administration administers millions more in low interest loans for businesses.
I could go on about the billions of dollars the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends to widen and maintain eroding beaches in front of the coastal palaces of hedge fund operators and other financial wizards, not to mention the folly of trying to stabilize shorelines, but I won’t. Instead, I want to end with two thoughts.
First, it is important to think through who benefits from all these programs. Is it families who live and work in their homes? Retirees who also own a second home elsewhere? Or perhaps the damaged properties are owned by investors and absentee landlords, a trend increasingly common along the coasts? In my mind, the answers make a difference in how I think about the stories I write and how I write them. After all, we have means testing for programs for the poor. Maybe we need something similar for wealthy owners of coastal property.
Finally, the president’s infrastructure bill makes billions available for climate mitigation and so-called resiliency projects. There are endless possibilities here for reporters, beginning by defining what resiliency means. I have been writing about the coasts for three decades, and I still can’t say. Does it mean building back in the same place, only stronger? Erecting massive sea walls, the way officials in New York City, Charleston, and Miami propose? Elevating houses as seas rise?
Most of these efforts are temporary. They buy time but they don’t solve the underlying problem. You can’t stop the seas from rising. In fact, they are likely to rise faster and higher in the future, scientists say, spreading flood water even farther inland. At a certain point, barrier islands will flood or drown.
In the end, water wins.
Water always wins.
Gilbert M. Gaul, NF ’83, is a former reporter for The Washington Post and other newspapers and the author of “The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts” (FSG, 2019). He won Pulitzer Prizes in 1979 and 1990 and was a Pulitzer Finalist four other times. He lives and surfs in New Jersey.