Does the federal government make hurricane damage worse? It’s not as silly a question as it sounds.
I don’t mean, of course, that Washington somehow controls the weather. No, the mechanism here is far simpler than that—think economics, not science fiction, as Josiah Neeley explains at The American Conservative:
It may seem odd for people to be moving into [flood-]vulnerable areas. But one major explanation for this trend is simple: government is paying for it.
The National Flood Insurance Program, for example, offers policies to people in flood-prone areas. The NFIP was created in 1968 to address a gap in the private market—insurers weren’t confident that they could accurately assess the risks of flooding and were concerned about handling many claims at once when disaster struck. But even today, with much better modeling tools and sophisticated global markets that can spread risks far and wide, the NFIP still holds 5 million policies. This is because the NFIP charges rates so far below the levels that actuaries would recommend—in some areas, only 45 percent of the full level of risk—that private companies cannot compete.
Less than a year after Hurricane Katrina, I was in New Orleans working with a missions organization on clean-up projects for a few days. One of the things we did was totally gut a family’s home that had flooded to ceiling height.
This was in April, if I recall, and the home had stayed unoccupied since the storm hit the previous August. It was in rough shape. Everything had to come out—all their ruined belongings, but also all the drywall, cabinets, carpet—everything. The team I was with wore full protective gear including heavy-duty breathing masks because mold was rampant throughout the house.
By the time we left after about a week, we’d stripped that house to the studs. It was great to be able to help that family, but I couldn’t help but notice their block was full of other houses that weren’t stripped and showed no sign of restoration work at all. Some were probably abandoned, and even those that weren’t were a long way from habitability.
We had driven through devastated neighborhoods where the levees whose failure contributed significantly to Katrina flooding were visible just a few blocks away. The risk struck me as enormous and almost certainly not worth it.
“Why,” I remember thinking, “would anyone come back here? Even if you fix everything and your neighbors fix everything, another storm could come through next year and ruin it all over again.”
What I didn’t know then was what Neeley’s article chronicles: that very well-meaning people at the federal government have unwittingly made hurricane damage worse by subsidizing risky city planning which encourages people to live in these low-lying coastal areas.
Of course, some would live on low ground regardless, but people without the financial reserves to comfortably deal with the kind of destruction one of these superstorms can wreak would be much less inclined to put the biggest investment of their lives in such a dangerous situation.
As Neeley puts it, “masking the extent of risk through artificially low insurance rates is almost literally a recipe for disaster.” He continues:
It’s also unsustainable. When insurance programs charge rates below what’s needed to meet expected damages, they naturally find themselves unable to pay out claims. The NFIP, which is supposed to be self-funding, is more than $20 billion in debt to federal taxpayers. After Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, [the state-created Texas Windstorm Insurance Association’s] financial situation grew so precarious that the organization briefly considered bankruptcy. In Florida, potential liabilities could amount to $2.7 trillion, so large the state itself might not be able to pay for it.
With yet another hurricane season upon us and serious damage already done by Hurricane Matthew, it is heartbreaking that so many people live in places they were essentially tricked into believing are safer than they are. It will take a long time and many difficult decisions to correct the havoc these well-meaning but ill-considered programs have wreaked.