Perhaps the only topic touchier than whether people should abandon their homes is why the problem even exists. West has heard of global warming, but he's not entirely sure it's responsible for the rising water. "Nobody knows, I don't think. Everybody speculates," he says. Local authorities rarely, if ever, speak the words "climate change."

"I wouldn't want to turn some positive influences off by coming up with a political term," said Paul Koll, Gloucester County's building official. "I am really conscious of not labeling it anything so I don't shoot myself in the foot." Two years ago, when leaders in neighboring Mathews County broached the subject of sea level rise, tea partiers packed meetings warning of an environmentalist plot to "put nature above man." They linked a proposal to build dikes to a United Nations sustainability plan known as Agenda 21, which has inspired a number of conspiracy theories among far-right activists.

Never mind that the Middle Peninsula, made up of Gloucester and five other counties, expects up to $249 million in new climate-related costs by 2050, a figure that doesn't even include potential damage from storms like Isabel or Ida. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, projects that climate impacts could cost the state a whopping $45.4 billion by 2050, with extreme storms alone putting $129.7 billion worth of property at risk.

Yet Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell phased out a Governor's Commission on Climate Change after taking office in 2010. His attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli (who won the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination in May), has spent a good deal of his time in office seeking to prosecute former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann for his work on historic temperature records. And when state lawmakers requested a study on sea level rise, Republican state Del. Chris Stolle retorted that the term was "left-wing." (The Legislature settled on "recurrent coastal flooding.") And Virginia is better off than neighboring North Carolina, where lawmakers last year explicitly refused to consider scientists' current projections in coastal building decisions.

*Correction: The original version of this article classified more of these disasters as weather-related; as one reader pointed out, four of them were instead earthquake-related.

Sunk costs: THe high prices of superstorms

 

Just as New York City planners had data showing that a superstorm could devastate the city, the federal government has plenty of data on the climate cliff—the looming budgetary catastrophe from emergency spending. In January, the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee released a draft of its latest report, warning of the "high vulnerability of coasts to climate change." The report optimistically added that "proactively managing the risks will reduce costs over time." But with congressional Republicans actively derisive of climate science, the odds of that are not great.

The closest thing to a federal effort to mitigate climate risk may be the 25-year-old FEMA grant program that pays for the house raisings in Virginia. But most of the money is designed to kick in after a disaster, to prevent recurrence—and it doesn't take into account whether houses in the floodplain are viable in the long term. Still, it's more proactive than the lion's share of FEMA's post-disaster spending, which allows people to rebuild in high-risk areas as if a storm or flood will never happen again.

I visited Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in his office the day after the $60 billion Sandy relief package passed the House, nearly three months after the storm. He wasn't happy with it. "What Sandy illustrated is both the increasing vulnerability—and the costs and consequences," he told me. "But we really didn't condition the recovery on making sure that we minimize people going back in harm's way."

A slight, bookish lawmaker whose lapel often sports a bright plastic bike pin, Blumenauer has been Congress' loudest critic of disaster policy. Even the Sandy package, he notes, had no incentives to consider climate change as part of rebuilding plans. If Blumenauer had his way, the federal government wouldn't rebuild any of its facilities in the floodplain—no post offices, no office buildings. Counties that get disaster relief would be required to enforce better building and zoning codes. And the feds wouldn't pay to keep rebuilding homes exactly as they were before a storm.

"In the aftermath of a disaster, the instinct is to reach out to people, to try to help them," he adds. "And so many people, their first instinct is to just go right back. It is devastating to look at all the things we do that keep people anchored in very dangerous places."

True, he says, it's hard to challenge people's yearning to rebuild. But at some point, lawmakers need to start thinking about the next cataclysm. "Before the next big wildfire, before part of the coast washes away, before the predictable unpredictable storm hits, what are the principles we're going to have?" Blumenauer asks. "What is going to be the condition of federal assistance?" With that in mind, he has been trying to expand mitigation programs for years, with limited success. Under the 1988 Stafford Act, 15 percent of the emergency relief funding Congress allocates to FEMA must be used for mitigation, but that money is only allocated after disaster strikes.

I asked Blumenauer if it's even practical, in the long run, to raise or relocate all of the homes that need it. "It's expensive," he says, "but it's a fraction of what we're routinely spending."

Why, then, do we keep spending more? One reason is that most disaster spending doesn't actually show up in the federal budget; it's treated as "emergency spending," which isn't included in regular appropriations. So while fiscal hawks in Congress leave disaster preparedness programs chronically underfunded, disaster relief is treated as a budget freebie. The obsession with deficit reduction—codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which capped federal spending as part of the debt ceiling debate—has reinforced that trend. "You lowball it so you can spend the money elsewhere, but then you come in with the disaster supplemental, which is free money," Blumenauer says. Congress has had to pencil in extra funding for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund in 8 of the last 10 years, after the appropriated amount fell short of the actual need. And it keeps happening; the Obama administration's proposed 2013 budget, for example, shaved 3 percent—$1 billion—off the Disaster Relief Fund.

Chronically underfunding disaster spending is shortsighted in the extreme, says Blumenauer. "We're just cannibalizing programs," he says. "We save arguably $5 for each dollar we invest."

Just as disaster relief funding ignores the fact that today's disasters are tomorrow's normal, the NFIP is virtually designed to ignore dramatic changes in weather and flood patterns. Created in 1968, it was made to help people in the most flood-prone areas acquire insurance—policies that private insurers were not willing to underwrite. In 1973, flood insurance was made mandatory for anyone who had a federally backed mortgage in an area considered at risk for a 100-year flood; those already living in those areas were grandfathered in at heavily subsidized rates. Today, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America estimates that homeowners covered by federal flood insurance pay just half of the "true-risk cost" to insure their properties. In the highest-risk areas, they pay just a third.

No surprise, then, that the federal insurance program is now $25 billion in the hole. In the Sandy supplemental spending bill, Congress upped the program's borrowing authority by $9.7 billion, to $30.4 billion, to meet new claims—money that is unlikely ever to be paid back. And because the subsidy is so great, there's no incentive for private insurers to enter the market, says Frank Nutter, president of the trade group Reinsurance Association of America. "If you had a program that is fiscally sound, you'd probably find more insurance companies willing to write the risk," he says. "They wouldn't be competing with a government program that is underpricing the risk."

The other problem with subsidized insurance is that it encourages people to build—and stay—in high-risk areas, since they'll be bailed out even if they incur disaster after disaster. It's what economists call a moral hazard, a circumstance that encourages people to engage in risky behavior because the costs are borne by others.

"In many cases," says water consultant Conrad, "we've removed the most important element in our marketplace that forces the responsibility on the decision maker him- or herself." Conrad has been documenting the flood insurance program's problems since 1992. In 1998 he found that "repetitive loss" properties—those that had more than $1,000 worth of damages from a storm two or more times in a 10-year period—made up 2 percent of insured properties but were responsible for 40 percent of what the program was paying out. For 1 in 10 of those properties, the program had paid claims that totaled more than the house's market value. (In response, in 1999 Blumenauer introduced the "Two Floods and You're Out of the Taxpayers' Pocket Act," which never made it out of committee.)

The NFIP has long been a sore spot for both environmentalists and small-government conservatives. "It has been a very long-term subsidy for development in places where we simply shouldn't be developing at all," says Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a libertarian think tank based in Washington. "There are areas that we've developed that probably shouldn't have been developed in the first place, and wouldn't have been if we had private insurance, or even actuarial rates in a public program." But reform has been tough—because every attempt at change meets firm opposition from politicians representing flood-prone districts, and from local governments that rely on coastal properties for property taxes and economic development. "Every time they'd try to raise the rate, there would be a roar from up on Capitol Hill," says Conrad.

In 2004, Blumenauer did push through a major overhaul of the insurance program, including incentives to raise or buy out houses that had been damaged multiple times. But it took hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and a more deficit-minded Congress, to pass another flood insurance reform bill last year that finally limited subsidies for second homes and for properties that were damaged repeatedly.

Under that 2012 reform, such homes will see premiums rise dramatically over the next five years, eventually bringing 400,000 of the most heavily subsidized properties up to market rates. The new law also lets FEMA buy homes that are considered "severe repetitive losses" at their full pre-disaster price, rather than the 75 percent it offered before.

But perhaps the most significant change in the reform involved maps—specifically, FEMA's floodplain maps, which determine who must buy flood insurance. Those maps can now for the first time include "future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes." But there's a catch: Those changes don't affect the new flood maps FEMA is currently releasing, the first in 30 years. Floodplain maps issued for New York City and coastal New Jersey in late 2012 and early 2013, for example, don't account for sea level rise. Maps for the rest of the country are rolling out slowly, and it's unclear when they will start including sea level projections.

Back during the Bush administration, in 2007, FEMA began a major assessment of how climate change would affect the flood insurance program, with a projected completion date of 2010. When FEMA finally released the report in June 2013, it included a number of alarming findings. Rising seas and severe weather are expected to increase the area of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, doubling the number of people insured by an already insolvent program.

It took three and a half months to put Chris West's house up on a higher foundation. When Hurricane Sandy glanced off the Virginia coast just a few months after the contractors were done, everything at his end of the neck flooded, but the water flowed right underneath his house. "I don't have that worry anymore," West says, "of being displaced out of my home." A couple of other homeowners decided that they just wanted to leave; as of May, Gloucester County had acquired 18 parcels of land, but since then, eight more homeowners have signed up for buyouts.

As vulnerable as it is to rising seas, Gloucester is lucky. It has forward-thinking local officials who acknowledge the problem, even if they'd prefer not to talk about the root causes. Gloucester County has earned improving marks from FEMA for trying to minimize flood risks with steps like establishing tougher building codes and requiring all new development to be built at least two feet above flood height. Those initiatives lower the cost of insurance for homeowners, but they also save the federal government money—an estimated $4 in future savings on property damage alone for every dollar spent on prevention.

Skip Stiles hopes an appeal to fiscal sanity is what will finally get decision makers to care about climate. Stiles, 63, is the director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based advocacy group that formed back in 1999 to protect shoreline habitats. Not long after joining the group in 2005, Stiles realized that saving tiny parcels of marsh wasn't going to help much if the entire coast was wiped out by century's end. "We started realizing it's not just the wetlands—it's the whole freaking economy in this region that's at risk," he says.

That, and not that many people care about wetlands. "We said, 'What do people care about?' Their homes, their business, their way of life."

Stiles took me on a ride through Norfolk, highlighting spots that have seen major flooding in the past few years. He pointed to one house where a car floated into the front door during a storm, and another that the owner, tired of dealing with the water, has been trying to sell for months. We drove through the Old Dominion University campus, where a small, permanent lake has formed in the back corner of a huge parking lot. "You can't pave under water," he noted dryly, "so this obviously wasn't under water when this parking lot was paved."

Stiles left Washington for coastal Virginia after 22 years as chief of staff to the late California Democratic Rep. George Brown, who in 1978 launched the first federal climate change research program. But it was not until he saw Norfolk's frequent flooding that he realized climate change, far from a distant threat, was a disaster well under way. "I thought, 'Oh, the feds are going to fix this,'" Stiles says. "BS, ain't happening. It's local government—and man, the politics at the local level."

So Stiles started showing up at local planning commission meetings, begging officials to stop approving new shoreline developments in the face of inevitable sea level rise. Back when he began, in 2006, "they looked at us like we were crazy"—coastal land is often the most valuable in a county, and it generates the highest property taxes. But then he stopped talking about climate change and started talking about budgets. "Suddenly it was like a key in the lock," he says. "What quickly happens is the money you put into those neighborhoods exceeds the property tax you get out. These neighborhoods turn into money pits. There just isn't enough money to raise all of the structures that need to be raised."

For Stiles, it doesn't matter whether local officials will actually utter the words "climate change," so long as they start dealing with the impacts. "Our perspective is just, 'Look, get on the bus, and we'll figure out together where the destination is,'" he says.

It's all about good, old-fashioned fiscal conservatism, says Conrad, the water consultant: "If this is all done by just pots of money being thrown around, most of the residents will be inclined to just take the money, do what's immediately convenient, and ignore the elephant in the room, which is that the Atlantic Ocean wants to move inland."

Matthias Ruth, an economist at Northeastern University who focuses on climate impacts, says the key is to provide a financial return for planning ahead. "We know that what once was the 100-year floodplain now is the 10- or 5-year floodplain. So what we need to do is give the incentives to either fortify buildings, elevate them, flood-proof them, or have a controlled retreat." Instead, "we pretend it's not an issue and we put ever more infrastructure into the coasts and ever more people."

Ruth ticks off the expected costs of climate change on the coasts—seawalls, flood insurance claims, disaster response, not to mention dislocation, stress on communities, and lost social connections. And what if, after a major storm like Sandy, there were an ice storm or maybe another hurricane the following year? "It's these one-two punches, the cumulative effect that they have on our infrastructure, our social systems," he says. "What we already see is worrisome, but this is going to be an order of magnitude more worrisome."

And with every year that goes by without shifting the incentives, both the costs and the future fiscal liabilities get larger. Many observers believe that after a major disaster, particularly one of Sandy's size and scope, there's a window—maybe six months, maybe a year—for a real shift in direction. Even with Congress frozen in denial, there's a lot the Obama administration could do: The Veterans Administration could stop underwriting mortgages on homes in flood-prone areas, and the Department of Commerce could deny economic development grants to projects on the coast. The Department of Housing and Urban Development could situate new low-income housing away from flood zones, and the Department of Transportation could build roads where they won't be under water in the near future.

We're already spending billions on responding to storms and disasters made worse by climate change, notes Ruth; Sandy gave us a chance to think differently. "Why don't we take [that money] and invest in infrastructure in ways to overcome the existing inefficiencies and improve quality of life?" he asks. "And then as we do this, reduce the vulnerability. Instead of having this downward spiral, have an upward one."

In the end, says Stiles, it might be a matter of how many disasters it takes to generate momentum. "I look at these little moments, this incremental progress, but I wonder, 'Is there enough time? Can we make it?'" he says. "Are there enough of these events coming up, and are we smart enough to catch up with the change that nature is going through?"

This story was supported by a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.