Scientists, political leaders explore alternatives to disaster readiness

A two-day symposium at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz brought together insurance executives, coastal scientists, and politicians.

The collective goal was to rethink how to protect areas and people that are seeing increasingly worse natural disasters, such as the Pajaro flooding.

"This isn’t the first place where we’re going to be having levee problems. So what we need to be doing is figuring out how we incorporate more of nature’s flood plains to reduce those risks, instead of just relying on the levee as the last line of defense," said Dr. Mike Beck, director of the U.C. Santa Cruz Center for Coastal Climate Resilience.

State officials said only about 10% of Pajaro flood victims have flood insurance. Insuring better mitigation measures prior to the next flooding event, and spreading the coast evenly, will protect both residents and the environment.

"Thinking of climate insurance, community insurance, so that we ensure that everybody has the same access to recover from these floods, wildfires, extreme heat," said California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.


Aerial view of breached levee on the Pajaro River in Monterey County

Heavy rains over the weekend breached a levee on the Pajaro River on California's Central Coast, flooding out nearly the entire town.

He joined coastal scientists and insurance executives at the University of California, Santa Cruz Center for Coastal Climate Resilience.

The ongoing symposium centers on how to create insurance policies for nature itself, protecting the environment and people.

"It used to be that we thought of climate change as a future problem. It’s a hear-and-now problem, and we’ve got to be figuring out ways to reduce the risks that it’s creating," said Beck.

From floods to forest fires, and quakes to severe droughts, the destruction adds up in damage to community, and the increasingly high dollar costs for the fix.

Commissioner Lara said state government can be the buffer between disaster and better resiliency.

"Why not elevate it, and create a climate community insurance program. So that, the local government takes out the policy, and protects everyone from flood wildfire and extreme heat," he said.

Jackie Higgins is a senior vice president with Swiss Re, a Swedish company that’s spearheading this new wave of thought.

"We look at the risk. And if we think we can price it properly, then we treat it like a similar asset. And you can make money off it and stay in business at the same time," said Higgins.

The second day of the symposium, Mar. 17, will feature break-out groups that look at regional test location for this concept of blended insurance with natural strategies.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on Twitter, @JesseKTVU and Instagram, @jessegontv.