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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

“Four Years After #Katrina, A Mix Of Progress And Inertia”

August 30th, 2009 · No Comments

An editorial in Friday’s USA Today summarizes some of the lessons learned and not learned from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Among the positives, according to “Four years after Katrina, a mix of progress and inertia,” are the rebuilding of FEMA as well as that:

–The New Orleans levees so easily breached in 2005 are in better shape. The Army Corps of Engineers is about one-third done with a $15 billion upgrade to the region’s flood control systems. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a poorly conceived canal that was at least as effective at funneling water into New Orleans as aiding ship-borne commerce, has been closed. And authorities are beginning to restore wetlands that give the region a natural buffer.

–In Mississippi, casinos have been rebuilt on solid ground after the state abandoned the fiction that its gambling was somehow less objectionable if its casinos were on floating structures. Rising prices for real estate and insurance, meanwhile, have caused a shift in new building toward more durable high-rise structures. A number of other states along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have imposed stricter building codes…

However, the editorial goes on to say that the impact of those positive developments:

has been greatly diluted by the ongoing taxpayer subsidization of building in hurricane-prone areas. Homeowners in flood zones, including coasts vulnerable to hurricanes, can get federal flood insurance at rates that don’t come close to approximating the actual risks, thus subsidizing risky development. That insurance program is $19 billion in the hole because of its low premiums and massive payouts.

Efforts to limit the program, or hike premiums to put it on sound footing, are stuck in Congress. In all likelihood, the existing debt will be formally forgiven by Washington, enabling the insurance program to start racking up fresh debts. The unrealistically low rates encourage people to build, or rebuild, in areas that probably should be left alone or developed with steel-reinforced concrete structures.

To some extent, private homeowners’ insurance, which protects against wind (but not water) damage from tropical storms, is helping to discourage unwise building. Rates for this coverage have surged in recent years as insurers have concluded that an extended period of benign storm activity might have ended. Many took massive losses with Katrina and are determined not to let that happen again.

But lawmakers from coastal regions have responded to this message with a kill-the-messenger approach. They are pushing to have federal taxpayers take over liability for wind damage as well.

Florida might have even come up with a way to put federal taxpayers on the hook without getting legislation through Congress. Its state government has taken over much of the property insurance business, now insuring about half of the structures in the state.When a major storm hits and wipes out its catastrophe fund, the smart money is on Florida officials running to Washington for a bailout. In the wake of bailouts for car companies and banks, among others, the pleas would be hard to resist.

Four years after Katrina, and 40 years after Hurricane Camille slammed the Gulf Coast, this unwillingness to reassess risks and to pay the requisite premiums threatens to undermine the work of public officials trying to make coastal communities safer. Good intentions are important, but they are no replacement for steely eyed realism.

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Tags: Hurricane Preparedness · Media

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