Climate Cast: Cost of climate change? Sandy survivors face extreme choices as insurance rates skyrocket

Marlo Lutz, 44, and her daughter Harlie, 12, leave their home in Toms River, N.J., after checking the progress of ongoing construction. Earlier that day, a crew poured new concrete piers to lift the structure 13 feet. Newly-redrawn FEMA maps placed the Lutz’s home in a flood zone, requiring them to lift the property to mitigate future damage. "You work all your lives to have a nice house and one day just changes your life," Marlo said. Image: NBC News

MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins Kerri Miller Thursdays at 9:50 a.m. on The Daily Circuit for "Climate Cast" on MPR News Stations to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences that we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.


These days it seems like we are witnessing climate changes unfold right before our very eyes.

It's not our imagination. The nature of our seasons is changing.

Spring blooms come earlier. Summer is more humid with a documented increase in extreme localized flash flood events -- and more frequent droughts. Fall lingers longer. Lakes freeze up later. Winters are trending shorter and noticeably, measurably milder. New plants are able to thrive in Minnesota's milder climate.

We're all living witnesses to rapid climate changes in our lifetime. This is no longer your grandparents' Minnesota or planet Earth.

Before you keep reading ...

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Hurricane Sandy's storm surge breaches barrier island in New Jersey. Image: New Jersey National Guard

The Cost of Climate Change?

Talk about tough choices.Thousands of homeowners devastated by Hurricane Sandy are faced with a choice unthinkable even a year ago:  Pay skyrocketing insurance rates of up to $20,000 per year, or spend up to $100,000 to elevate rebuilt homes anywhere from 8 to 14 feet to avoid future storm surges.

Some New York and New Jersey neighborhoods are becoming ghost towns as residents abandon their demolished properties. Homes worth $400,000 before Sandy are now appraised at as little as $10,000. Up to 68,000 homes in New York City and thousands more in New Jersey now fall into "flood zones" in new FEMA flood zone maps.

Some who do rebuild are raiding retirement and college funds to pay for the changes. Some are choosing to just walk away.

Did Sandy create a new wave of  "Climate Change Refugees?" Is this a kind of  "forced climate change choice" that will increase with future storms?

NBC's  Miranda Leitsingerand and US News have an illuminating story on how extreme weather and a changing insurance landscape may be creating a new wave of  "Climate Change Refugees."

TOMS RIVER, N.J. – Thousands of homeowners in New York and New Jersey impacted by Hurricane Sandy are facing a tough choice that may thwart their efforts to rebuild: Comply with costly new federal construction guidelines or prepare to pay annual flood insurance rates that could top $20,000.

New federal flood maps released in June showed a total of 68,000 structures in New York City and thousands more in New Jersey were in flood zones. Now, affected homeowners are being forced to make drastic changes to their residences, such as elevating them on pilings, or incur punishing new insurance premiums that will take effect by mid-2015. Given the new rules, many Sandy survivors are grappling with whether they should alter their properties – or leave.

 “We are faced with something that we can’t overcome,” said police officer Kevin Faller, 52, a Toms River resident who has decided to give up his home rather than comply with the new requirements. Having already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in home equity post-Sandy, Faller said he and his wife could not afford “this tsunami of expenses coming toward us.”

Minnesota Insurance Rates Rising Too

Think you're not paying for the well documented climate change induced increase in extreme weather in Minnesota?

Think again.

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Storm damage from June 21st derecho in the Twin Cities. Image: MPR News

We imagine California, Texas and Florida as the top drivers of insurance losses from extreme weather events. Lately, an increase in extreme weather events in Minnesota are taking a toll on insurance companies. Minnesota has ranked as high as 3rd in states with the highest insured losses from extreme weather in recent years. Hail damage is on the rise,  and ice dams and wind damage are costly and widespread in Minnesota.

Insurance rates in Minnesota are on the rise. Now, insurance companies are pushing for a so called "cosmetic damage exclusion" that would allow your insurance company not to pay for hail, wind or other damage to your home if it did not allow the "weather" to get inside.

Golf ball sized hail dents in your siding on the front of your home? Too bad. Live with it or pay for repairs yourself.

Here's a comprehensive report from insurance industry group Cerus on how extreme weather is putting the insurance industry in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Extreme Weather Risks to the Property and Casualty Sector are Growing

More frequent and severe extreme weather events, along with increasing populations in coastal areas and other exposed regions, are having profound impacts on the property/casualty insurance sector. The value of insured losses due to weather perils has been trending upward over the past 30 years, with 2011 exacting an especially heavy toll.

Overall, the estimated $44 billion of insured catastrophe and extreme weather losses in 2011 was second only to 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma hit the Gulf Coast (with insured losses totaling approximately $60 billion).

In early 2011, insurers watched as severe weather including tornadoes in Missouri, wildfires in Texas, hailstorms in Arizona and flooding along the Mississippi River drained their capital reserves. For many insurers, these spring storm events substantially eroded or exceeded their 2011 budgets for catastrophe losses, making last year’s relatively quiet hurricane season a blessing. It is notable that while the property/casualty industry remains strongly capitalized, shock events can push more vulnerable companies into the red and even insolvency.

Weather Whiplash:  "Flash Drought" hits "severe" level in Minnesota

Talk about weather extremes. Minnesota has gone from drought, to flood to drought again in under 9 months. Thursday's US Drought Monitor confirms what we've been seeing in our backyards. The drought is getting worse.

Here's an excerpt from my conversation on Thursday's Climate Cast with my MPR colleague Kerri Miller.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday morning, said that more than half of Minnesota is in drought, some of it severe — "basically between Willmar, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, that bull's-eye right in the central part of Minnesota," Huttner said.

"That drought was wiped out this spring," Huttner said. "All of the Midwest was pretty much drought-free. The rains shut off about July 1, and since then ... the drought is back, and it's back in a big way. The Midwest just this last week went from 7 percent drought to 25 percent drought."

"Crops are yellowing across Minnesota," he said.

"This sort of light-switch climate change that we have in Minnesota, where we go from drought to flood back to drought. There just doesn't seem to be a middle ground lately," he said. "There are parts of the world where they have what's called a wet-dry climate. Where part of the year is wet, part of the year is dry. Minnesota has not been in that category, but we're starting to see trends where we're starting to see the first half of the year wetter in Minnesota, the second half drier. This has been fairly pronounced over the last few years.

"We don't know what climate change will do to Minnesota overall in the long run exactly, but this is one trend that seems to be emerging."



Climate Change Mitigation: What you can do

Let's fact it, Climate Change can seem like an overwhelming problem with few easy solutions.

Many of you have asked what you can do in your lives to combat and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Here are some great resources from NASA and EPA.

NASA: Resources on Climate Change mitigation

EPA: What you can do about Climate Change

EPA: Regional impacts of Climate Change

Climate Cast resources:

Want to know more about climate change? Here are few quick links to credible climate change sources.

-Read the Minnesota Public Radio primer on Climate Change

-NOAA NCDC's "State of the Climate" report

-AMS Statement on Climate Change

-NASA key evidence of climate change

-Great summary of Modern Day Climate Change from SUNY-Suffolk

-Minnesota Climate Working Group climate change resources

-Mark Seeley's Weather Talk

-Common climate change myths

-Climate change in the news from Climate Central

-More coverage from The Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media

In 2013 at MPR we're devoting more coverage to the science behind and the growing effects of our changing climate in Minnesota and around the globe. You can hear me discuss the week's top climate stories, and get perspective from climate experts in our new "Climate Cast" every Thursday morning at 9:50 a.m. with Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit. -- Paul Huttner