Since 1978, New Jersey has received more in payments from the National Flood Insurance Program than all but two states. Only Louisiana and Texas have gotten more money to rebuild flood-damaged property. And one more big storm could push New Jersey past Texas on that dubious list.
That sobering fact ought to be enough to convince people that planning for future storms should be a top priority in New Jersey. Although Hurricane Sandy was unusual in its intensity and the amount of destruction it left behind, experts warn that it would be foolish to think of such storms as once-in-a-lifetime events.
A recent report commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency describes a future where coastal storms are more destructive and more costly. The report, "The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program Through 2100," predicts that the number of flood-insurance policies for coastal areas could more than double by the end of the century, and the average flood-insurance payout could increase by 90 percent, leading to an unfunded liability in the trillions of dollars.
The report bases some of its predictions on climate-change models, but you don't have to be a believer in man-made climate change to see that sea levels are rising and major storms are becoming more frequent. On top of that, more and more people are living in vulnerable areas, driving up the cost of storm damage.
Those trends are likely to continue, so it makes sense that for the first time the federal government is setting a national standard for rebuilding flood-damaged properties. The new standard requires rebuilding to at least the elevations on the most recent flood maps, plus one foot. This is similar to an executive order Gov. Chris Christie issued after Hurricane Sandy, when he required building heights based on advisory flood maps.
But the new federal standard may not go far enough, since flood maps are based on historical records and do not take future rises in sea level into account. The same could be said of New Jersey's efforts. The state has done a great job of rebuilding after Sandy but has not used the storm as an opportunity to plan for a future of rising seas.
As visitors return to the shore in the summer after Sandy, it is clear that much of the coast is getting back to normal. The question, however, is whether normal is good enough in a changing world.