World First Look

Before disasters strike, how much responsibility should fall to homeowners?

In the face of global natural disasters, city planners and government agencies look for ways to encourage homeowner preparedness in addition to rebuilding public infrastructure. 

Flooding in a neighborhood of Havana, Cuba after hurricane Irma.
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
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Caption
  • Chris Arsenault
    Thomson Reuters Foundation

Cities should use subsidies and taxes to get homeowners to protect themselves from climate change, experts said, as millions have been displaced by massive storms across swathes of Florida and the Caribbean and rains in India.

The cost of rebuilding from disasters linked to climate change will grow dramatically if cities do not take action, analysts and a Canadian official said.

"Homeowners are expected to play a part in flood risk management," said Daniel Henstra, a professor studying climate change adaptation at Canada's University of Waterloo.

"This is a way of sharing the cost and responsibility."

While government infrastructure programs, like flood barriers, better drainage and wetland preservation, are key, individual actions taken en masse are also crucial, he said.

Hurricane Irma caused record flooding in parts of Florida this week after it left a path of deadly destruction on several Caribbean islands.

South Asia's most devastating floods in a decade killed more than 1,400 people and focused attention on poor planning and lack of preparedness for annual monsoon rains.

Cities can use financial incentives to encourage homeowners to act, said Stephen Tyler, president of Adaptive Resource Management, which advises on urban planning, in Canada's western British Columbia province.

"We have to design and build for a future that is unpredictable," Mr. Tyler told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Institutions need to help reduce the risks in the first place."

British Columbia, which has been ravaged by forest fires, is one of several Canadian provinces that offer incentives to people to clear brush from around their homes.

Changing homeowners' perceptions is crucial as government often doesn't own most of the land in major cities, Mr. Henstra said.

People sometimes sometimes balk at the idea of paying extra taxes, he said, citing an unsuccessful attempt by Toronto in May to charge homeowners for the rising costs of storm and flood protection.

"One councilor called it a 'roof tax' or just another tax grab," Henstra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Toronto's chief resilience officer, Elliott Cappell, said homeowners are willing to invest in schemes like flood insurance and better drainage if issues are framed the right way.

"I don't think it is as simple as saying 'homeowners do not want to pay," Mr. Cappell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Where we can work with insurance companies and homeowners themselves to make their properties more resilient, I think there is a lot of buy-in."

Toronto is giving homeowners up to $3,400 (Canadian; US$2,800) per home to install flood protection devices.

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation

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