According to a graphic displayed on the “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC this morning, Hurricane Sandy will be the second most expensive hurricane in United States history, after Katrina. The usual suspects will use information like this to argue that a bigger, stronger federal government is needed (a) to respond to natural disasters, and (b) to combat climate change. But the horrendous expense of the hurricane clean-up is better seen as an indictment against an all-intrusive Uncle Sam.
Writing in New Geography, Matthew Stevenson has this to say about the “federalization of the disaster business”:
Previously storm damage and the costs of clean up were the responsibilities of states and municipalities, who in the first place made the decisions to allow homeowners to build houses and businesses on barrier islands, sand dunes, and low-lying waterfront property.
For much of the twentieth century, insurance companies refused to write flood or hurricane policies for stilted houses perched precariously on Cape Hatteras or wherever, which angered wealthy political donors, who equate their life successes with owning beachfront property.
Enter the federal government into the realm of disaster indemnification, when Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968, to mandate that vulnerable home owners in potential flood zones purchase adequate insurance that private companies were refusing to cover. Think of it as Obamacare for beachfront homes.
Although the legislation was designed to cover the undue risks of shore properties, it also gave the political parties a mechanism that would allow (for all those waterfront contributors) a building boom on hurricane-exposed barrier islands. …
Not only was the federal government complicit in allowing places like Myrtle Beach to become housing projects (the poet Robert Watson called it “white Harlem by the sea”), it also assumed that its job performance could be measured by the number of blankets and water bottles that reached those crazy enough to “ride out” a major storm in their seaside mobile homes.
As Stevenson observes, the local political forces — property owners, the construction lobby and the rest — are powerful enough as it is. Once state and local governments are relieved by the federal government of a significant burden of responding to and indemnifying against disasters, local authorities have even less reason to push back against those who would develop vulnerable coastlines.
If you believe that anthropogenic climate change is contributing to the increase in ferocity and frequency of hurricanes (I’ll sidestep for now the issue of whether that’s true), the last thing you should want is a bigger, stronger FEMA. You should do everything in your power to halt subsidies of lunatic development in vulnerable, flood-prone areas.