Growing Returns

The way we respond to natural disasters is about to change

Vulnerable communities facing increased risk from flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather could soon receive a big lifeline thanks to the introduction of the National Coordination on Adaptation and Resilience for Security (NCARS) Act. If passed, this bipartisan legislation would create a unified national strategy for disaster planning. This proactive approach would consolidate government disaster planning efforts to promote efficiency and improve American resilience. 

Extreme weather is taking a greater toll on the United States than ever before. Climate-fueled disasters from Maui to Miami to Maine are accelerating across the country, threatening human health, critical infrastructure, property and the environment.  

flooding from hurricane

U.S. billion-dollar disasters over the last five years cost taxpayers nearly $600 billion, and in 2022 alone total damages reached a devastating $165 billion. For coastal communities in the U.S., flooding caused by sea level rise, hurricanes and heavy rainfall is the new normal while regions west of the Mississippi River have come to expect extreme heat, prolonged droughts and water supply shortages punctuated by heavy deluges of precipitation. 

Our current approach to federal disaster preparedness is woefully inadequate given the ever-increasing toll of climate disasters. The federal government currently has a siloed approach to disaster preparedness, with funds spread across at least 17 different federal agencies with no coordinated plan to optimize risk-reduction spending. The federal government instead operates through a piecemeal resilience strategy, even as many states (like Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) have led the way by successfully initiating statewide resiliency plans implemented by their Chief Resilience Officers.

The current approach to natural disasters is not meeting the needs of communities. Instead, leaders at all levels of government need to take a holistic, all-hands-on-deck approach to build lasting resilience. 

The bipartisan NCARS Act, introduced by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representatives María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) and Scott Peters (D-CA), is poised to make a big impact. The legislation will drive efficient, equitable resilience by minimizing redundancies across agencies and supporting community adaptation efforts by: 

  • Establishing a Chief Resilience Officer in the White House 
  • Producing a National Adaptation and Resilience Strategy and Implementation Plan with federal agencies, state, local, Tribal, and territorial governmental and private sector organizations, and academics as partners  
  • Establishing interagency working groups and a non-federal partners council to increase coordination among involved entities 

This new approach to governing disasters will not only save the government money on future disaster spending but will also support communities and families across America working to protect their own safety, livelihoods and futures.

With more intense extreme weather events happening more frequently, we desperately need to improve and streamline the way our government invests in natural disaster preparedness and a more resilient future. The bipartisan NCARS Act is a truly crucial step toward that essential goal. 

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North Carolina’s coastal wetlands and marshlands are a critical lifeforce for hunters and anglers

This op-ed was originally published in The Coastland Times. 

Last week as Hurricane Lee tracked northward through the Atlantic, North Carolina’s coastal areas saw coastal flooding and beach erosion from storm surge and powerful 17-foot waves. At Cape Hatteras, the storm’s erosion uncovered a buried fence from the 1800s. Elsewhere, roads and neighborhoods experienced flooding. Those effects were felt despite Lee being more than 300 miles off our coast. We were fortunate the monster storm didn’t come any closer to our shores. These tropical systems, along with Nor’easters and other more frequent storm events take a toll on residents, business owners, and our state’s natural resources, including important fish and wildlife habitat.

As we mark National Hunting and Fishing Day, it’s worth taking stock of how increasingly intense and more frequent severe weather events are impacting our marshlands, wetlands, and sounds, which in turn directly – and adversely – affects our coastal communities and our hunting, fishing and outdoor recreational history and traditions. Read More »

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Transformational climate adaptation puts communities at the center. This project shows us how.

From record-setting rain in New York City to overflowing rivers in Vermont to another hurricane slamming into Florida’s coast – this year alone, we’ve seen historic neighborhoods, communities, local businesses and homes devastated by severe weather events that are becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change. Now more than ever, we need to invest in climate resilience to prepare our communities. 

Building resilience isn’t easy, but it’s possible – and the Ohio Creek Watershed project in the City of Norfolk, Virginia is a prime example. Earlier this year, city officials and community members celebrated the completion of a $112 million watershed resilience project that shows transformational climate action is possible when community members have a seat at the decision-making table.  Read More »

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Learning from shared scarcity: the Colorado River, the Yellow River and the world

This blog is co-authored by Yiwei Gan.

One of the largest rivers in the world struggles to reach the ocean. Spread across a huge slice of a continent, its basin supports millions. Yet the weight of its work to irrigate and power booming farms and cities in an increasingly arid zone is straining the river to a breaking point. For many working in the western water space, this describes the Colorado. A river whose over-work and over-allocation, despite its fundamental role in sustaining life for half a continent, seems in many ways singular.  

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Opportunities to support equitable and just housing adaptation in the floodplain

Co-authored by: Anushi Garg and Linda Shi

Anushi is the senior analyst for Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Resilient Coasts & Watersheds program in New York-New Jersey. Linda is the assistant professor for Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University.

Flooding is one of our nation’s most common, devastating and growing disasters–and the risk is deeply unequal. Years of disinvestment due to redlining and other racist land use and housing policies have put primarily Black, Indigenous, Latinx and immigrant communities at disproportionately higher risk of flooding and less able to adapt or financially recover after a flood event. Each disaster can devastate individuals and families with the fewest resources and further exacerbate these inequities

To help communities adapt, we need to expand and modify programs and policies to support the strategic relocation and adaptation of the existing housing stock, in addition to updating building codes and zoning regulations so new construction meets a higher standard of energy efficiency and resiliency. 

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Cornell University partnered this past year to better understand the programs that support proactive retrofitting or relocating to accommodate flood risk for a range of housing types in New York City. In particular, we studied cooperative housing, which is minimally researched and often left out of most assistance programs. This research served as a pilot for EDF’s ongoing research on housing assistance programs nationally. Our research is still underway, but we are sharing our preliminary takeaways about opportunities to close the resilient housing gap Read More »

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For some Texans, a day without water is not imaginary – it is an unfortunate reality

In Presidio County, running water is a luxury that some residents do not enjoy. Families in Las Pampas, a Colonia near the Mexican border, must truck water from the City of Presidio to their homes north of town, spending money and time to secure what many Texans take for granted – running water and the economic opportunity this provides. Decades ago, when Las Pampas was first developed, a few groundwater wells supplied water to homes and even a restaurant, but the wells were poorly constructed and too shallow to access reliable underground water in this desert region.  Eventually, they stopped flowing, and Las Pampas literally dried up. Read More »

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On this International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, protecting the Nation’s wetlands is more important and urgent than ever

By: Ivy Steinberg McElroy, EDF’s Climate Resilient Coasts & Watersheds Intern

The International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction was established by the United Nations General Assembly to accelerate action to strengthen disaster resilience. In the United States, this day comes on the heels of a major blow to our Nation’s wetlands. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to narrow the scope of protections for wetlands, as defined in the Clean Water Act. As result, this landmark decision could cause detrimental impacts to the environment, communities and economy. That means more flooding – especially for more vulnerable communities downstream.  Read More »

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Hispanic Heritage Month: meet local leaders helping communities address key water issues

As Hispanic Heritage Month ends, we celebrate our Hispanic Water Leadership Institute alumni making a difference in their communities.

Nearly 20% of the United States identifies as Hispanic. The largest minority group in the country is also the largest group disproportionately impacted by contaminated groundwater. This is due to a lack of resources and widespread inequities in funding, policies, investment in water infrastructure and education. Read More »

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4 opportunities for Virginia’s General Assembly to build statewide flood resilience

In recent years, flash floods have decimated homes, businesses and communities in southwest Virginia and families are still recovering and rebuilding from the damage. Research shows that investing in flood resilience saves at least $6 for every $1 spent pre-disaster, which is why it’s so important to start planning for climate impacts now. 

While many localities are taking steps to plan for current and future climate impacts, many lower-resourced, small or rural communities need additional support from statewide planning initiatives, funding programs and technical assistance to address their flood risk. Virginia leaders must continue to build flood resilience through four big initiatives. 


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Will adding more sand to Florida’s beaches save them? Experts share why this isn’t enough.

White blankets of sand, bright blue water and palm trees swaying with the breeze – it’s the picturesque landscape that comes to mind when you think of Florida’s beaches. But this stunning scenery comes at a cost with the need to regularly artificially replenish eroding shorelines, a process also known as beach nourishment. 

Over the last 87 years, Florida has spent at least $1.9 billion on beach nourishment, and state and local governments pay $30 to $50 million per year to maintain their coastlines. While this may mean beautiful beaches, taxpayers should question if beach nourishment alone is the best investment for Florida in the long-term.  

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