How the Coastal Barrier Resources System Helped Protect Texas from Even Worse Losses Associated with Hurricane Harvey

A One-of-a-Kind Storm

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall just a couple of weeks ago, it came with record-setting numbers. The total 51.88 inches of rain that fell was the most from one storm in continental U.S. history—to put things into perspective, it takes Texas an average of 15 months to accumulate 50 inches of rain. Nearly 27 trillion gallons of rain were dropped onto the Houston, Texas, area—enough water to fill 86,000 Astrodomes, according to the Houston Chronicle.

There's been outreach and support from all over the U.S. as the recovery process begins and continues for Texas. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 32,000 federal staff have been deployed and more than 4,500 FEMA staff have been deployed. The American Red Cross has stated that at least 33,000 people have sought refuge in 284 of its shelters and its partner shelters throughout Texas. Eventually, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association will release its official estimate of the cost of Harvey, but reports have indicated it could be anywhere from $70 billion to $108 billion.

Street flooded in Houston after Hurricane HarveyCredit: FEMA/Dominick Del Vecchio

Losses Avoided Through the Coastal Barrier Resources Act

It's hard to believe these astronomical numbers could be higher, but thanks to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), we don't have to face that reality. Enacted in 1982, CBRA discourages development along vulnerable coastlines by designating 3.1 million acres of mostly undeveloped areas along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rican coasts as part of the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS). Essentially, if an area meets certain development and geomorphic requirements, it may be added to the CBRS. When this happens, the government removes incentives and subsidies for new development, such as federal flood insurance, loans, and grants. If an area is in the CBRS, private entities are still allowed to develop, but they must bear the full cost and build at their own risk, which means no federal assistance in the event of storm damage.

The CBRS: Dollars and Cents

The three areas where Harvey made landfall were all within the CBRS, starting near Corpus Christi, Texas, then Copano Bay, Texas, finally making landfall again near Cameron, Louisiana. These coastal areas took the initial hit of Harvey, thereby reducing inland wind and wave damage. Since these areas were within the CBRS, development was sparse, as most people prefer not to assume full responsibility for risky development and find other places less vulnerable to develop. Coastal areas by their very nature are subject to higher development pressures than inland areas, so having them in the CBRS saves the government and taxpayers money in the event of natural disasters like Harvey, and likely also Irma in the next few days. In total, it's estimated that CBRA has saved taxpayers approximately $1.3 billion since its inception in the '80s.

Screen capture of the CBRS map from USFWSCredit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Modernizing the CBRS

Over the years, various reauthorization acts have been put in place to assist in expanding and updating the maps that outline the CBRS. To get these maps up-to-date they require new areas to be identified for inclusion, boundaries to be modernized, and overall more closely aligned with controlling geomorphic features. CBRA is a proven model for preventing losses, protecting sensitive coastal ecological environments, preventing loss of life, and ultimately saving money. With Hurricane Irma approaching and Hurricane José following behind, it's clear that efforts should be made to support and fund the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enable it to continue its CBRS modernization efforts and thereby maintain and enhance this solid losses avoided program for our nation.

  • Steve Kalaf
    Steve Kalaf
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