By midday Sunday (Aug. 27), US president Donald Trump had already tweeted more than 20 times about hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that hit southern Texas with more than 20 inches of rain in 24 hours and winds of up to 130 mph beginning Aug. 25. None of those tweets recognized a fundamental economic truth: America has already racked up big costs from storms driven by climate change.
Harvey is likely to create massive new claims against an already in-debt program called the National Flood Insurance Program, which has only $5.8 billion left that it can borrow from the Treasury to meet new claims, according to The Wall Street Journal. The US government created the federally-funded program more than 50 years ago to provide low-cost insurance to people with homes along the coast, insurance that private companies weren’t willing to provide.
The idea was to insure them for catastrophic losses during big storms, like hurricanes, which then occurred less than 10 times a year over the Atlantic Ocean. The program has been controversial; while it protects ordinary homeowners, it also subsidizes rich people who want a big house with an ocean view.
Over the last few years, the US coasts have been whacked with bigger, and more frequent, storms. From 1995 to 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, named Atlantic storms have been occurring about 15 times a year. Most scientists attribute this to global warming and the effect of rising sea temperatures, which tend to allow the formation of larger, more powerful storms that last longer.
The flood insurance program is already $25 billion in debt, much of that generated from hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and superstorm Sandy in 2012. Sandy alone cost $8.4 billion. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma caused nearly $200 billion in total damages in 2005, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news agency.
How much Harvey will cost, of course, can’t yet be measured. According to the Journal, the flood insurance program has 450,000 policies covering about $125.7 billion in insured value in the Texas counties declared a disaster by the state’s governor, with more than half that value in Harris County, where Houston is.
That’s a lot of federal money potentially going to rebuild places most directly affected by the big storms accelerated by climate change. Maybe when Mar-a-Lago is under water in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump will stop calling the phenomenon a “hoax.”