James Lee Witt and James M. Loy: It only takes one big one to catch us unprepared

James Lee Witt And James M. Loy

It was 70 years ago this hurricane season that the most powerful hurricane to ever make landfall in this area slammed into Long Island and tore a path of death and devastation throughout New England. The ferocious storm took 700 lives and left 63,000 people homeless.

Seven full decades later, we are equally exposed and immeasurably more vulnerable to a hurricane as powerful as the 1938 storm commonly known as the “Long Island Express.”

Wind gusts reaching 186 miles per hour were recorded in the Boston area. In total, an estimated 4,500 homes were completely destroyed; thousands of others were severely damaged. Bridges and roadways were rendered unsafe for travel and 20,000 miles of power and telephone lines were downed.

That storm occurred at a time when much of the affected area was comprised of small towns, fishing villages, farmland and uninhabited forest. If the same storm struck today, the damages and loss of life would be unthinkable.

Important and substantial steps have been taken by state and local governments throughout the region to protect our homes and families. Our first responder groups are far better prepared and equipped than they were in the 1930s. Our evacuation routes are well established, and many of our homes have been built to withstand enormous natural stresses.

But, those steps are only a beginning.

A comprehensive program that prepares us before an event, protects us during an event and provides us with the resources we need to repair, rebuild and recover after an event is as overdue as the next massive storm.

Increased and improved preparation, mitigation and the establishment of a privately funded financial backstop are the keys to how well we will weather the next massive storm.

Building codes need to be reviewed and revised to ensure that new buildings can withstand Mother Nature’s fury. Concerted efforts must be made to encourage the retrofitting of existing homes and structures to meet the challenges of a massive hurricane.

First responder training and equipment needs to be enhanced to meet the demands of the region. Establishing stable and predictable sources of funding for these life saving programs is fundamental to meeting the obligation to keep our families safe at a time of crisis.

Catastrophe funds would not only improve the mitigation and safety programs to prepare and protect us, they would also assure that our families could recover from catastrophe.

These programs would be financed by private insurers, not taxpayers, and would stand behind the traditional insurance market. They would guarantee that victims of massive events have the resources they need to repair, rebuild and recover and would make homeowners insurance more affordable and available.

The House of Representatives has passed legislation to create a national catastrophe fund and a proposal in Massachusetts would create a state catastrophe fund. The measures would promote a comprehensive catastrophe protection program by requiring that state funds dedicate a portion of their investment income to improving mitigation and planning, increasing public education and augmenting funding for first responders.

These catastrophe funds would not replace the private insurance market or the reinsurance market. Instead, they would supplement a portion of the coverage that insurance companies buy for the most dramatic losses.

It has been 70 years since the last massive hurricane ripped through New York and New England. There is little question that another such storm will strike this region.

The question that remains is how prepared and protected will we be?

James Lee Witt was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton Administration. Adm. James M. Loy was commandant of the US Coast Guard and was deputy secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. They are co-chairs of