Why do we keep paying for rebuilding in disaster-prone areas?
I'm all for people pitching in to rebuild after a hurricane. But should the taxpayer be subsidizing the rebuilding, especially when an area has proven to be disaster-prone?
DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. - Even in the off season, the pastel beach houses lining a skinny strip of sand here are a testament to the good life.
They are also a monument to the generosity of the federal government.
The western end of this Gulf Coast island has proved to be one of the most hazardous places in the country for waterfront property. Since 1979, nearly a dozen hurricanes and large storms have rolled in and knocked down houses, chewed up sewers and water pipes and hurled sand onto the roads.
Yet time and again, checks from Washington have allowed the town to put itself back together.
Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas. If history is any guide, a large fraction of the federal money allotted to New York, New Jersey and other states recovering from Hurricane Sandy - an amount that could exceed $30 billion - will be used the same way.
Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane.
"We're Americans, damn it," said Robert S. Young, a North Carolina geologist who has studied the way communities like Dauphin Island respond to storms. "Retreat is a dirty word."
This island community of roughly 1,300 year-round residents has become a symbol of that reflexive policy.
While not all of those who own beachfront property can be considered rich, the fact is, there are few more valuable parcels of land in the country than some of the ocean view houses and cottages that are continually battered by storms.
The same holds true for communities along rivers that are flood prone. A river town that experiences a flood every one hundred years is one thing. But some communities get flooded out a couple of times a decade. The question is the same; should the government - and our tax dollars - continuously subsidize those who live in disaster prone areas?
There is no easy answers:
"We simply can't go on subsidizing enormous numbers of people to live in areas that are prone to huge natural disasters," said Eli Lehrer, the president of the conservative R Street Institute, part of the coalition.
This argument might be gaining some traction. Earlier this year, Congress passed changes to the federal flood insurance program that are supposed to raise historically low premiums and reduce homeowner incentives for rebuilding in the most hazardous areas.
Less widely known about than flood insurance are the subsidies from the Stafford Act, the federal law governing the response to emergencies like hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes. It kicks in when the president declares a federal disaster that exceeds the response capacity of state and local governments.
Experts say the law is at least as important as the flood program in motivating reconstruction after storms. In the same way flood insurance shields families from the financial consequences of rebuilding in risky areas, the Stafford Act shields local and state governments from the full implications of their decisions on land use.
No doubt those affected by disasters would oppose any changes that would prevent them from rebuilding their dream vacation home, or their family business - no matter how many times disaster struck. But in an era where trillion dollar deficits and massive public debt are weighing down the rest of us, it might be time to have a conversation about this and figure out a way to satisfy the needs of homeowners with the demands of fiscal responsibility.