Rebuilding After the Storm

As much as I was happy to help homeowners in The Rockaways this weekend, one persistent thought came to mind as I filled garbage bags with debris and dragged them out to the curb: We braced for Irene last year, and survived relatively unscathed. Sandy came this year and the destruction was devastating. What about next year? Or the year after that? Or 10 years from now? It would be naive to think that Sandy was an outlier, and that another big storm won’t happen again. A coastal community like The Rockaways would certainly be vulnerable when the next one comes around. How much sense does it make to rebuild everything?

I’m sure this is a question that the residents of Florida get often whenever hurricane season rolls around. The homeowners I spoke with said that they had lived in the community for years, and that they wouldn’t abandon the place they called home. This weekend, the Times looked at Dauphin Island in Alabama which has been perpetually hit by devastating storms in the past three decades, and the millions of dollars the federal government has put into rebuilding the Dauphin community when it’d be much better to convince people that it’s too dangerous to continue living on the island:

Dauphin Island is a case study in the way the federal subsidies have enabled repetitive risk taking. Orrin H. Pilkey, an emeritus professor at Duke University who is renowned for his research in costal zones, described the situation here as a “scandal.”

Dauphine Island has accepted lots of money through the federal government through the Stafford Act, “a federal law that taps the United States Treasury for 75 percent or more of the cost of fixing storm-damaged infrastructure, like roads and utilities.”

One alternative is to buy out the property owners in vulnerable areas and convince them to move (“Entire towns were moved out of the Mississippi River flood plain in the 1990s, for instance, saving money over the long haul.”) That can take years to do, and people are willing to weather the bad times. “Hopefully this won’t happen again and we’ll be better prepared next time,” a homeowner told me. Hopefully, he’s right.

Photo: Dakine Kane

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10 Comments / Post A Comment

This is something that I was thinking about a lot during the bad fire seasons in Colorado these past couple of years. It’s a really tough question, because everywhere is a potential disaster area. If it’s not storms and flooding, it’s wildfires or earthquakes or tornadoes or droughts. I very strongly believe that people shouldn’t live recklessly in dangerous areas, but I believe equally strongly in government programs that help spread the risk around.

deepomega (#22)

@SarcasticFringehead The problem of course is how you define risk. Like, catastrophic health insurance is something many people will never use. But Dauphin Island has been hit by MANY nasty storms, and the federal money has added up to $60,000 per resident. That’s not spreading the risk around, that’s subsidizing living in a dangerous place.

@deepomega Oh, for sure. I just feel like every time there’s a disaster with property damage, there are people who say that “they just shouldn’t have been living there!” (not that this was Mike’s argument at all), when there’s nowhere you can live that’s safe from disasters of one kind or another. I wonder what the cutoff should be between spreading risk and subsidizing recklessness.

deepomega (#22)

@SarcasticFringehead Easy solution is just to put a “number of disasters” limit. Like, one per location per decade. If there’s more, find non-federal money to fix it. Would at least set up incentives to leave those areas, without punishing people for disasters that are out of their control.

@deepomega Agreed- it shouldn’t be too hard to do an analysis of places that are much more likely to be devastated by storms and for the government to state in advance, “We’re not going to help you rebuild if this happens again.” (You can bet insurance companies already know where those places are.)

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@deepomega But where will these people go and what will happen to the economy? They say this about New Orleans as well. Could you imagine if the government shut down the whole city for good? Or what about San Francisco or Los Angeles? Or the people living in trailers in Oklahoma? I’m in a geography class and we talked about this topic and to me, it’s just not possible to re-locate everyone out of disaster zones. I think we need to devote more efforts to making these places safer. My cousins have a house in Ocean City, New Jersey, right on the water, and because of how it is constructed, they had no damage at all. A lot of their neighbors did not have the same luck. We also need to pay attention to what we do to the environment to prevent disasters. A friend lives in Appalachia and because of coal work and strip mining, houses and lives have been destroyed from avalanches that could have been easily avoided.

deepomega (#22)

@josefinastrummer “They” say this about New Orleans because they don’t actually know how much it costs to fix it, or why the disasters happened. (Answer: It was a man-made, completely avoidable disaster. See http://www.levees.org/ )

SF has had one major disaster in the last century. LA has had two. Compare this to an island getting flooded every five years, or the people who live on the Outer Banks and have to constantly fight the fact that the whole thing is supposed to be moving with the water. Very different. There is nothing that could be done to save the Outer Banks from their periodic destruction, except not live there.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@deepomega Okay so where are those people who live on the Outer Banks going to go and where will they get jobs and how will the state survive without the tourism dollars? It sounds to me like you are saying no one should live/work/go to a coastal area and that’s just not possible. Other countries, like Japan and Chile, which have earthquakes a lot, prepare for these disaster the best they can, so the people can keep living and working where they want or have to. Imagine if everyone in Chile had to move off the coast? Where would they go?

deepomega (#22)

@josefinastrummer I’m not saying they have to leave, I’m saying they have to pay for the cost of living there. Rebuilding after regular disasters should be built into that cost – so either make a ton of tourism money, or be willing to treat living there as a luxury that they have to pay more for. Earthquakes aren’t a good comparison, because they are rarer affect more people.

That said, I’d be more ok with the state (or city) paying for repairs. Keeping risk-outcomes more local would help prevent weird incentives to never leave a high-risk location.

The Mole (#2,633)

I wish more people would have this discussion in an honest way, and try to leave emotions out of it.
When you’re forced to rely on public support to hold onto and repeatedly rebuild your home (with no or minimal private insurance option, because, you know, they don’t like giving away money), you really have to wonder about how much some of these places make sense to hold onto.
Let’s turn the rockaways into a park like Jones Beach. Buy out the residents, clean it up, and voila, a brand new park nicely accessible by public transport.

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