Hurricanes, flooding, and climate resilience

My research addresses the rising cost of extreme weather events in the United States and alternative approaches to promote resilience.

South Carolina wetlands

South Carolina wetlands

nature-based solutions: conservation in the floodplain

With colleagues, I have evaluated the costs and benefits of conservation of natural lands such as forests and wetlands in the floodplain as a way to provide flood attenuation ecosystem services. I have an article in Environmental Science and Technology, coauthored with Carolyn Kousky, Sheila Olmstead, and Molly Macauley, that looks at strategically placing “natural infrastructure” in a riverine floodplain in Wisconsin. Carolyn Kousky and I took these methods to the Meramec River in Missouri; we performed a retrospective analysis of the benefits and costs of the Meramec Greenway. That paper is published in Ecological Economics (ungated version available here).

I have been working with coastal engineers at George Mason University to evaluate the storm surge attenuation benefits of coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay region. These methods combine sophisticated surge modeling, land cover information, and detailed property value data to calculate the damages avoided from changes in wetlands land area. Our papers are still in development, but you can see a presentation I gave at the 2016 A Community for Ecosystem Services (ACES) conference. GMU PhD candidate, Ali M. Rezaie has made several presentations of the work, including an analysis that incorporates sea level rise and marsh migration. Check out Celso Ferreira’s research and the Mason Flood Hazards Research Lab for a look at all the cool work going on at GMU.


Dymer Creek and Chesapeake Bay, Virginia

Dymer Creek and Chesapeake Bay, Virginia

coastal development and storm risks

In “Modeling Coastal Land and Housing Markets: Understanding the Competing Influences of Amenities and Storm Risks,” Nicholas Magliocca, Virginia McConnell, and I use an economic agent-based model to analyze how housing consumers trade off coastal amenity values and storm risks (ungated version here). As storm frequency increases with climate change, our model shows people moving away from the coast, land values falling, and lower income people moving in—patterns that often play out in the real world. In a follow-on paper, Nick and I incorporate alternative forms of risk perception, and repeated storm events, in the model to see how behavioral failures can influence coastal residents and affect land use patterns.

I have work in progress on disaster migration. With Danae Hernandez Cortes, a PhD student at UC-Santa Barbara, I am analyzing how hurricanes affect county-to-county migration patterns in the U.S. Presentation scheduled for CNREP 2019 conference in New Orleans in May 2019. Stay tuned for a draft working paper.

I have done a lot of research on transfer of development rights (TDR) programs. TDRs allow landowners to sell their development rights for use on another property. The “sending” property usually gets a conservation easement placed on it; the “receiving” property is developed more densely than would otherwise be allowed under the baseline zoning rules. In this blog post, I wrote about the potential to use TDRs to protect land at risk from sea level rise. I have several other papers on TDRs; Virginia McConnell and I published a review in Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, which summarizes some of the pros and cons.


Flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey

Flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey

flood risk perceptions, insurance, disaster aid

Andrew Royal and I conducted a survey to formally test for overoptimism in the floodplain and how it affects flood insurance purchases. Our paper, “Flood Risk Perceptions and Insurance Choice: Do Decisions in the Floodplain Reflect Overoptimism?” was published in Risk Analysis in 2018. This blog post provides a quick, user-friendly summary. tl;dr… yes, people seem to be overly optimistic: the average person thinks her flood risks are less than those of her neighbors.

The cost of providing aid after a disaster has risen dramatically in the U.S. But the amount of money most people get is pretty small. Danae Hernandez Cortes and I analyzed the FEMA data on disaster aid for the 2017 hurricane season (that was a big one: Harvey, Irma and Maria). In this blog post, we highlight three main findings: (1) disaster aid amounts are small ($8,900, on average, for homeowners affected by Hurricane Harvey, the highest amount of the three hurricanes); (2) most people getting disaster aid did not have flood insurance (28% for Harvey, again the highest of the three); and (3) richer households get more aid, on average, than poorer ones.


Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia, after Hurricane Sandy

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia, after Hurricane Sandy

coastal protected lands

Natural lands in coastal areas provide protective services but the lands themselves are under threat from sea level rise and increasingly intense storms. Many of these natural lands are valuable parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas. In “Threatened Protection: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Protected Lands of the Eastern United States,” Becky Epanchin-Niell, Carolyn Kousky, Alexandra Thompson and I mapped the lands under threat in the eastern U.S. by state and considered their value based on land cover characteristics. We also looked at which states are addressing the challenge (way to go, Maryland) and which are ignoring it (ahem, South Carolina). Here’s a shorter version of the paper, published in RFF’s Resources magazine.

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act, passed by Congress in the early 1980s, designated coastal barrier islands all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS), an area where federal subsidies to development are prohibited — including subsidized federal flood insurance, disaster aid, and infrastructure spending. In this blog post with Matthew Wibbenmeyer and Carolyn Kousky, we describe the CBRS and hold it up as a possible model for designating high wildfire risk areas.