The cost of the Marshall fire is eye-popping. With more than 1,000 homes destroyed, preliminary estimates put the insured losses at more than half a billion dollars.
Meanwhile, Republican members of Colorado’s congressional delegation continue to oppose legislation to address climate change — the fundamental cause of this and 20 other billion-dollar disasters across the country last year.
They argue the price tag for climate mitigation and adaptation is too high. Building resilient systems is out of reach, they say. Reducing greenhouse gases is just too expensive. Best to just keep burning fossil fuels and rolling the dice on our future.
It’s better for the economy, right?
Um … only if you don’t do the math.
Kristin Smith, a researcher with Headwaters Economics, spends her time running the numbers and said that the billion-dollar estimate on the cost of the Marshall fire is only the beginning.
“The full cost of a wildfire is not just about property damage,” she said. “With any disaster, there are rippling impacts that people tend to overlook.”
Among those impacts are increased insurance premiums, more limited access to bond markets, indirect economic losses such as higher housing costs and reduced personal income and, most significantly, a reduced tax base for the community.
“We did a study a few years ago of the full cost of a wildfire and found that 65% of the costs are long term,” she said. “Of that, 46% of those long-term costs are subsumed by local governments, businesses and individuals.”
That means the potential for lost personal income and higher taxes for those who choose to stay and rebuild.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is critically important to communities responding to disasters, generally limits its assistance to construction and other costs related to a town’s immediate needs.
Years later, after the ashes from the fires are long gone and the floods have receded, local governments and school districts may still be struggling to pay the bills because many businesses and residents simply left.
Can you blame them?
“Another question is just how expensive is it to always be in reactive mode,” Smith said. “Often we are spending a ton of money on recovery that won’t create the outcomes we want.”
By not planning for climate change, not working to mitigate risk and failing to build sustainable systems designed for long-term recovery, we set ourselves up for an endless cycle of multibillion-dollar disaster response efforts.
And the climate crisis is getting worse.
As for the rest of the planet, oceans are warming dramatically, the U.S. experienced its highest recorded temperatures across the country, greenhouse gas emissions rebounded explosively and obstructionist Republican lawmakers continued their dangerous and costly magical thinking.
It’s why year-round wildfires, severe unseasonable tornadoes and more frequent and powerful hurricanes will make disaster recovery a grim way of life for at least the next 50 years.
By not adapting to blatantly obvious climate changes, we send good money after bad — rebuilding vulnerable structures and systems in areas prone to hurricanes, wildfires, sea-level rise or all manner of predictable disasters.
Since tax revenues are reduced and bond markets consider these areas risky investments, the very systems that could make the communities safer and more sustainable are beyond the reach of those rebuilding.
It’s why we urgently need a plan for addressing disaster recovery, Smith said, one that faces reality.
The worst time to try to make such a plan is in the throes of disaster response when people understandably are traumatized and desperately want to recreate the structures and the sense of community that were lost.
“But you do want to take advantage of that moment of political will and begin the process of developing long-term plans that can make communities more resilient,” she said. “You want to strategically use the money that’s available to fund projects that actually get them somewhere.”
Historically, we’ve dealt with disasters as “one-offs,” Smith said. “But what if our response to flooding, for example, makes different hazards worse with climate change?”
Don’t we all really want to build back better?
Another aspect of a forward-thinking recovery plan is to make sure every community has access to the money.
“Wealthier communities are always going to be able to do more,” she said. “They will get the resources because they’re good at leveraging federal funding.”
It’s not the same for rural areas.
Small towns seldom have the staff or the expertise to write competitive grant proposals, according to a report from Headwaters. Further, federal funds are granted according to cost-benefit criteria that put rural areas at a distinct disadvantage.
“This can result in the inequitable distribution of federal mitigation funds and perpetuate legacies of disinvestment in rural, under-resourced communities,” the report said.
The vast majority of rural America, which is just as vulnerable to climate change-fueled disasters as urban America “has seen decades of disinvestment,” Smith said.
With every destructive tornado, flood, hurricane or wildfire, it just gets worse.
We need a long-overdue reality check.
Our whole approach to recovery needs a reboot — one that acknowledges the precarious situation that climate change has created, and one that helps communities adapt so they can survive all the bigger, badder disasters to come.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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