U.S. communities are arguably making progress using natural defenses to help protect themselves from disasters and climate change hazards. As of now, however, the effort still falls short and much more can be done, a new report concludes.

The report – “Natural Defenses in Action: Harnessing Nature to Protect Our Communities – has insurance ties. Global insurer and reinsurer Allied World Assurance Company Holdings AG is an author and developer of the document, along with The National Wildlife Federation and the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

A major point of the report is to point out progress made as well as urge far greater use of natural defenses to avoid, or reduce, hazard risks from factors such as flooding, coastal storms, erosion and wildfires. In an era of climate change, the frequency of such disasters is becoming worse. With that in mind, communities must pursue much more than disaster recovery, Allied World CEO Scott Carmilani said in prepared remarks.

“It is critical for government, communities, businesses and insurers to prioritize pre-disaster risk reduction and to take a proactive approach to understanding the functions that natural systems can provide,” Carmilani said in prepared remarks. “We are encouraged by the examples of disaster risk reduction included in our report and hope to see other communities follow this path.”

The report highlights successful examples around the country where natural defenses were successfully used to mitigate or help prevent disasters. They are:

  • Discouraging risky development on Alabama’s barrier islands.
  • Keeping pace with rising tides around San Francisco Bay.
  • Work to bring back the bayou in coastal Louisiana
  • Reducing flooding in Oregon, in part by “partnering” with beavers.
  • Moving out of the Mississippi floodplains.
  • In California’s Central Valley, managing floodplains for both wet and dry extremes.
  • Creating living shorelines in the mid-Atlantic.
  • In Flagstaff, Ariz., managing forests to end the fire-flood cycle.
  • In Cape May, N.J., a focus on protecting dunes and other natural elements.
  • Along the Great Lakes, using native vegetation to stabilize the shorelines.
  • Linking ecosystem and community resilience in coastal Massachusetts.
  • Blending green and gray infrastructure in New York City’s Jamaica Bay.

While these efforts have helped, the report authors want communities to go further. Their suggestions include:

  • Adopting policies that protect and restore healthy rivers, wetlands and other natural ecosystems that can maximize protection from flood, erosion, drought and wildfires.
  • Updated wetland protection rules under the Clean Water Act.
  • New or reconstructed levees set back from the water’s edge in order to improve floodplain function.
  • Support of conservation programs that involve the protection and/or acquisition of environmentally sensitive natural systems and open space.
  • Expansion of the Coastal Barrier Resources System to make sure federal subsidies don’t spur new development in these environmentally sensitive and hazard-prone areas.
  • A greater focus under the Stafford Act on pre-disaster planning and mitigation, and encouragement of communities to focus more on risk reduction using nature-based solutions.
  • Cut back on incentives to develop high-risk areas like active floodplains or barrier islands. This can be done by reforming federal and state insurance programs.

As well, the report calls for investment in natural defenses such as living shorelines, wetlands restoration, functional floodplains and proactive forest management. Both could help protect wildlife and human communities in the long term, the report said.

Source: Allied World, National Wildlife Federation, Association of State Floodplain Managers