Report: N.O. could become a world leader in flood losses

Annual flood loss projections are dire for New Orleans, which ranks fourth in the world behind only two other U.S. cities and a city in China, if the nation doesn’t do a better job of managing the risk associated with living near the coast, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Research Council.

“There just hasn’t been enough central leadership,” said Richard Luettich Jr., a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and chairman of the committee that wrote the report. Luettich also is a board member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

The report calls for better coordination among the agencies that deal with coastal disasters. While it does not recommend a single agency to take the lead, the report found widespread support for an agency to be in charge.

The United States not only needs central leadership in reducing coastal losses, but there also needs to be more emphasis placed on preparing to weather coastal disasters like tropical storms rather than just responding to the damage, the report says.

New Orleans ranks fourth among the top 20 cities around the world in terms of potential for annual flood losses, just behind New York-Newark, which ranks third, while Miami ranks second, according to the report. Guangzhou, China, tops the list.

Most of the burden of that disaster response cost has been gradually shifting over the years to the federal government as developers and local government reap benefits from coastal development, according to the report.

For example, in 1955 following Hurricane Diane, federal aid amounted to about 5 percent of the total cost of the damage that occurred. By 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, the federal share had grown to 75 percent.

“It’s one of those things that just sort of happened,” Luettich said.

Better incentives that would help encourage better coastal planning and development are needed, he said.

“We recognize this is not an easy problem. If it was an easy problem, it would have been solved by now,” he said.

The council, a part of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineers, was asked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study on whether the risks of coastal communities could be lowered.

The report recognizes that this is not the first call for better planning for coastal disasters, the most costly of which are tropical storms.

“Just keep doing business like we’ve been doing it for the past 50 years is not a viable solution,” Luettich said.

The report, he said, is meant to bring together information about the severity of the risks, outline technology that can help solve the problems coastal communities face and point out weaknesses in the coastal planning incentive system and how those weaknesses can be addressed.

It’s up to Congress and federal agencies to put money into helping make coastal communities better prepared to weather disasters, he said.

“The funders have to feel like it’s a good investment,” Luettich said.

A number of those events have already happened, such as the $60 billion spent after Hurricane Sandy and the $14 billion spent on the improved hurricane protection system around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which doesn’t count the disaster recovery assistance that was needed after that 2005 storm.

“Until you have enough of these events, you have a hard time believing that this is a good investment,” Luettich said. “It’s always hard to change the way things are done.”

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