Half a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the United States remains unprepared for nature’s worst. Given that future mega-disasters are inevitable, this presents a major problem. The challenge doesn’t stem from a lack of financial commitment (Congress has spent about $19 billion to help restore the Gulf Coast) or poor local efforts, but from policies that continue to focus development in harm’s way. If it wants to avoid disasters, the United States should take a simple step: revise national policies that encourage development in dangerous areas. Instead, it should adopt a national mitigation strategy to get people out of harm’s way.
Nobody can really doubt that other major natural disasters will hit the U.S. Even if this hurricane season remains relatively placid — far from a sure thing — meteorologists agree that we’re in the middle of a 30-year period of heavy hurricane activity. Widespread destruction of coastal wetlands, badly conceived levee systems, inadequate home-building standards and a National Flood Insurance Program that effectively subsidizes construction in flood-prone areas have made things even more dangerous. And plenty of signs point to a worsening situation. Hurricane-prone areas still continue to attract significant population growth, and many scientists believe that human-caused global climate change could intensify hurricanes for years to come. The consequences are simple — when major disasters strike, more Americans will be at risk and the country will have to borrow billions of dollars in order to rebuild.
Improving things will take hard work to mitigate risks. The country needs to withdraw many of the subsidies for development in hurricane-prone areas. The government should increase the amount of coastal land, currently 3.1 million acres, off limits to federally subsidized development through the National Flood Insurance Program support. Longer term, the government should make it clear that it won’t help with any development of wetland areas within the “alluvial plane” (the area of land between the ocean and continental bedrock) — these areas help to protect Americans. Flood control and drainage projects need a complete review. Rather than building the billions of dollars worth of new flood control infrastructure that Congress has authorized but not yet funded, the Army Corps of Engineers should focus on reinforcing existing infrastructure and prioritize truly necessary projects. Finally, the federal government should investigate ways to turn parts of the program over to the private sector.
While it’s doing this, the government can’t move in the wrong direction. Proposals to add wind coverage to the National Flood Insurance Program (already $19 billion in debt) and get the government into the private reinsurance business deserve speedy rejection from Congress. These proposals will further burden American taxpayers while incentivizing risky development, putting more Americans at risk. The government has a positive role to play in protecting us from disasters. Rather than subsidizing construction in harm’s way, the federal government should support initiatives to strengthen homes and infrastructure targeted toward lower-income individuals living in hurricane-prone areas.
In the end, no government action can entirely protect us from nature’s ravages. When possible, public policy should help people survive nature’s worst. It’s almost always cheaper to prevent disasters than clean up after them.
Ed Hopkins is the director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program and Eli Lehrer is national director of the Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate at the Heartland Institute.