When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 23, 2005, it caused more than 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage.
It also altered the course of state and federal disaster policy forever.
A decades’ long focus on response and recovery through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies began to give way to one on mitigation. In Katrina’s aftermath, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invested $14.5 billion in one of the largest public works projects in history to enhance infrastructure, reduce flooding and provide protection from future storms in New Orleans and surrounding areas.
The nation has averaged 15 billion-dollar disasters annually over the past decade—up from fewer than five per year between 1980 and 2009—and every state has had at least one.
The shift to mitigation gained a foothold at the federal level, with Congress establishing new initiatives such as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program through the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. The Resilience Revolving Loan Fund Program, established through the STORM Act, provides grants to states to set up loan funds for projects that reduce risks from severe storms, drought, wildfires and more. More recently, the federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, signed Nov. 15, 2021, includes $48 billion for disaster mitigation and community resilience across federal agencies. For more on the infrastructure bill, please refer to this NCSL resource.
In the wake of Katrina, legislatures in Gulf Coast states passed hundreds of bills to help rebuild. The Louisiana Legislature established the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, authorized the development of a coastal resilience plan and set the stage for infrastructure investments, including the fortification of levees and the construction of flood walls. In Mississippi, the Legislature strengthened building codes, set minimum construction standards for the state with opt-out provisions for municipalities and required coastal counties to strengthen building codes to meet certain wind load and flood mitigation requirements.
Return on Investment Consistently Higher
Investments in mitigation can be challenging to calculate, but National Institute of Building Sciences data shows that mitigation saves up to an average $13 per $1 invested across multiple types of disasters and a variety of approaches. As storms have become more frequent and more powerful, the return on investment has consistently increased, which has encouraged states and the federal government to invest even more in disaster mitigation.
Case studies from communities across the country support that investment. When Hurricane Ida made landfall south of New Orleans exactly 16 years to the day after Katrina struck the area, it brought 150 mph winds and heavy rains, testing Louisiana’s infrastructure investments. By most accounts, the systems held: New Orleans experienced less flooding than it did after Katrina, due in part to new and improved levees and other flood-related upgrades. Ida did, however, expose weaknesses in the region’s electrical grid, built infrastructure and coastal wetlands.
There’s no question that the frequency and severity of natural disasters are increasing. The nation has averaged 15 billion-dollar disasters annually over the past decade—up from fewer than five per year between 1980 and 2009—and every state has had at least one, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Given the trajectory, and growing proof that mitigation and resilience investments pay off, it’s likely that states and the federal government will continue to invest in making communities safer and better able to weather the next 100 years.
Kim Tyrrell and Shelly Oren track environmental policy issues in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program; Kristen Hildreth is a legislative director in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Program.