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The Science Of Disaster Economics: How Cities And States Can Prepare

Hurricane Harvey

Kevin Simmons is an economist with an unusual specialty: disasters.

The professor at Austin College in Sherman says cities, states and nations can prepare for disasters like hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey.

Interview highlights:

What are the lessons for Houston and Texas? "We need to be better at anticipating these events. Even though they don't happen on a daily, weekly, monthly or even annual basis, we know they're going to happen. So we need to be thinking long term and prepare our infrastructure, our homes, our use of land, so that we minimize the impact when they do occur."

In Houston, this is third major flood in three years. Is that the new normal? How do building codes, development rules and even zoning need to change? "When you have more development, you make any storm more likely to create flooding because you're covering up the ground that would normally drain the water.... When you also use land that is in vulnerable areas, then you're almost guaranteeing that when you get the eventual storm, your impact is going to grow.

"There's a lot of talk, 'Is this climate change?' You don't even need to talk about climate change to see why the cost of these storms is getting so expensive. You've got so many people moving into the Houston area. When you do have an event, there's just more stuff and houses there to be damaged and destroyed."

What do you say to the people who live in those neighborhoods — like Meyerland [southwest of Houston] — that have been flooded for three years straight? "If I was living there, it would be difficult to make the decision to rebuild. Particularly [if I were one of] those who made the choice not to get flood insurance. The penetration of flood insurance in Harris County is only about 15 percent. When you consider the number of people who don't have the financial backup to recover from this, it becomes a very expensive proposition The bigger question is, are there areas where we're just going to buy out the homes and say, 'We're not going to build there any more.'"

Kevin Simmons writes about the impact Hurricane Maria is having on Puerto Rico in this new piece for the Dallas Morning News.

Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.
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