Catastrophic storms in the past two weeks have exposed the wide disparity in preparedness for extreme weather events across the United States. At one end of the extreme is central Tennessee, where only 1 percent of the population is protected by flood insurance. At the other end is Louisiana, which was spared the worst thanks to levees and other protections introduced after the horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Humphreys County, Tennessee, 60 miles west of Nashville, was the epicenter of massive flash flooding on the weekend of Aug. 22 that took the lives of at least 20. The rain was so violent and fast that it was characterized as a “tidal wave.” At its worst, 15 – 17 inches of rain pelted down in a 24-hour period, setting records. Beyond the tragic loss of life is the fact that the vast majority of Humphreys County residents did not have flood insurance. In the entire state of Tennessee only 27,500 homeowners carry flood insurance, barely over 1 percent of the state’s 2.5 million homes.

The same day that Tennesseans were confronted with deadly flooding and apocalyptic scenes of houses lifted off foundations and carried away, the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts were battered by a rare New England tropical storm, Henri. And the following week Hurricane Ida crashed down on Louisiana, maintaining Category 4 strength for longer than was sustained by Hurricane Katrina, exactly 16 years before.

In sharp contrast to central Tennessee, Louisiana has taken measures to heighten protections for its citizens and property from severe storms, such as the $14.5 billion upgrade to the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. This featured an arsenal of preventative measures, including levees, flood gates, surge barrier walls and pump stations. More broadly, Louisiana enacted statewide building codes in accordance with 2006 International Building Code and International Residential Code.

As climate change continues to increase the risks of severe storms and other natural disasters, catastrophe-exposed regions of the country need to understand the elevated risk of loss, learn from current events, and take action, whether it be insurance or physical loss mitigation projects. Without these changes, the catastrophic losses of the past week will only be repeated.

Featured Publications