[Vision2020] As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why

Art Deco art.deco.studios at gmail.com
Mon Nov 19 08:50:42 PST 2012

  [image: The New York Times] <http://www.nytimes.com/>

November 18, 2012
As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why By JUSTIN

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — Even in the off season, the pastel beach houses
lining a skinny strip of sand here are a testament to the good life.

They are also a monument to the generosity of the federal government.

The western end of this Gulf Coast island has proved to be one of the most
hazardous places in the country for waterfront property. Since 1979, nearly
a dozen hurricanes and large storms have rolled in and knocked down houses,
chewed up sewers and water pipes and hurled sand onto the roads.

Yet time and again, checks from Washington have allowed the town to put
itself back together.

Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on
subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with
little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding
in disaster-prone areas. If history is any guide, a large fraction of the
federal money allotted to New York, New Jersey and other states recovering
from Hurricane Sandy<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/h/hurricanes_and_tropical_storms/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>—
an amount that could exceed $30 billion — will be used the same way.

Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially
duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane.

“We’re Americans, damn it,” said Robert S. Young, a North Carolina
geologist who has studied the way communities like Dauphin Island respond
to storms. “Retreat is a dirty word.”

This island community of roughly 1,300 year-round residents has become a
symbol of that reflexive policy.

Like many other beachfront towns, Dauphin Island has benefited from 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.

At least $80 million, adjusted for inflation, has gone into patching up
this one island since 1979 — more than $60,000 for every permanent
resident. That does not include payments of $72 million to homeowners from
the highly subsidized federal flood insurance program.

Lately, scientists, budget-conscious lawmakers and advocacy groups across
the political spectrum have argued that these subsidies waste money, put
lives at risk and make no sense in an era of changing climate and rising

Some of them contend that reconstruction money should be tightly coupled
with requirements that coastal communities begin reducing their
vulnerability in the short run and that towns along shorelines facing the
largest risks make plans for withdrawal over the long term.

“The best thing that could possibly come out of Sandy is if the political
establishment was willing to say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about how we
do this differently the next time,’ ” said Dr. Young, a coastal geologist
who directs the Program for the Study of Developed
Shorelines<http://www.wcu.edu/1037.asp>at Western Carolina University.
“We need to identify those areas — in
advance — that it no longer makes sense to rebuild.”

A coalition in Washington called
made up of environmentalists, libertarians and budget watchdogs, contends
that the subsidies have essentially become a destructive, unaffordable

“We simply can’t go on subsidizing enormous numbers of people to live in
areas that are prone to huge natural disasters,” said Eli
the president of the conservative R Street Institute <http://rstreet.org/>,
part of the coalition.

This argument might be gaining some traction. Earlier this year, Congress
passed changes to the federal flood insurance program that are supposed to
raise historically low premiums and reduce homeowner incentives for
rebuilding in the most hazardous areas.

Less widely known about than flood insurance are the subsidies from
the Stafford
the federal law governing the response to emergencies like hurricanes,
wildfires and tornadoes. It kicks in when the president declares a federal
disaster that exceeds the response capacity of state and local governments.

Experts say the law is at least as important as the flood program in
motivating reconstruction after storms. In the same way flood insurance
shields families from the financial consequences of rebuilding in risky
areas, the Stafford Act shields local and state governments from the full
implications of their decisions on land use.

Under the law, the federal government committed more than $80 billion to
disaster recovery from 2004 to 2011, according to a
report<http://www.gao.gov/assets/650/648162.pdf>from the Government
Accountability Office. While billions of dollars went
to relieve immediate suffering, including cash payments to families left
homeless by storms, nearly half of the money was spent helping state and
local governments clean and restore damaged areas and rebuild

At times, local governments have tried to use the money to reduce their
vulnerability to future disasters, but they complain that they often run
into bureaucratic roadblocks with the Federal Emergency Management

For instance, after flooding from Hurricane Irene washed out many culverts
in Vermont last year, many towns built bigger culverts to handle future
floods. But they are still
the agency over reimbursement.

W. Craig Fugate <http://www.fema.gov/leadership/william-craig-fugate>, the
agency’s administrator, acknowledged in an interview that “as a nation, we
have not yet figured out” how to use federal incentives to improve
resiliency and discourage excessive risks.

If private property owners want to assume the risks, “that’s one thing,” he
said. “But if we find that we as taxpayers are assuming that risk without
benefit, then we need to rethink that.”

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

The island, four miles off the Alabama coast, was for centuries the site of
a small fishing and farming village reachable only by boat. But in the
1950s, the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Mobile decided to link it to the
mainland by bridge and sell lots for vacation homes.

Then Hurricane Frederic struck in 1979, ravaging the island and destroying
the bridge.

President Jimmy Carter flew over to inspect the damage. Rex Rainer, the
Alabama highway director at the time, recalled several years later that the
president “told us to build everything back just like it was and send him
the bill.”

The era of taxpayer largess toward Dauphin Island had begun. With $33
million of federal money, local leaders built a fancier, higher bridge that
encouraged more development in the 1980s. Much of that construction
occurred on the island’s western end, a long, narrow sand bar sitting only
a few feet above the Gulf of Mexico.

“You can always look back and say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have done that,’ ”
said Mayor Jeff Collier, who noted that many of the decisions were made
before he took office over a decade ago. “But we can’t turn the clock

In the 1990s, big storms started hitting the island roughly every three
years. Two back-to-back hurricanes, Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005,
destroyed more than 300 homes. Most have not been rebuilt, but scores have
been. Some beachfront building lots are now inundated by the Gulf of

The bulk of the town’s reconstruction money has been spent on the western
end. That means many of the prime beneficiaries have not been permanent
residents, but rather vacation homeowners from places like New Orleans and

Since 1988, federal figures show, Dauphin Island property owners have paid
only $9.3 million in premiums to the national flood insurance program, but
they have received $72.2 million in payments for their damaged homes.
Figures from a federal contractor show that the average island resident
pays less than $700 a year for flood insurance, though a few do pay as much
as $3,000.

On Dauphin Island and in many other beachfront communities, the federal
subsidies have helped people replace small beach shacks with larger, more
valuable homes. That is a main reason the nation’s costs of storm recovery
are roughly doubling every decade, even after adjusting for inflation.

Dauphin Island has tried to limit its risk, imposing stricter building
codes that go beyond federal requirements. New houses now must be built
high on pilings to survive storm surges.

Local residents argue that federal help is warranted because their erosion
problems have been worsened by government dredging in the nearby Mobile
Ship Channel, which some scientists agree has helped starve the Dauphin
Island beaches of sand. And residents say that simply letting the island’s
western end wash away would leave the mainland and its marshes, rich with
seafood, more exposed to storms.

People here have formed strong emotional attachments to their island.
“There’s a lot of wildlife and a lot of bird life, and it’s just a great
place to relax,” said Jay Minus, a lawyer in Mobile who owns two homes on
the western end. “You can sit on the porch and watch the dolphins swim past
your house.”

Just this summer, Hurricane Isaac dealt the island a moderate blow, leaving
most homes unscathed but managing to do $3 million worth of damage to
public infrastructure. On a recent day, bulldozers crawled around the
island, scooping up tons of sand to replenish the beach. As in the past,
the town will most likely pay only 15 percent of the repair costs.

Coastal geologists describe western Dauphin Island as a textbook example of
a place that should never have been developed. Scientists say that climate
change will most likely speed up the rise of sea levels in the coming
decades and that many more coastal communities will face repetitive risks.

With little pressure coming from Washington or state governments, only a
handful of communities have started thinking seriously about a new

“We need a plan,” Dr. Young said.

Given the political realities, however, it is by no means clear how to move
forward. In some flood plains, public money has been used to buy out
vulnerable property owners. Entire towns were moved out of the Mississippi
River flood plain in the 1990s, for instance, saving money over the long

Several oceanfront communities have resisted such proposals, though one, in
Texas, consented to a buyout plan after being badly damaged by Hurricane
Ike in 2008. The federal government, despite its willingness to spend tens
of billions of dollars repairing communities after storms, has not put up
the kind of buyout money that might convince more owners to walk away.

Because buyout proposals often take years to put together, several experts
suggested that they be drawn up in advance with maps of properties targeted
for acquisition. Then, if those homes are damaged, state or local leaders
could move swiftly after a storm, offering the owners voluntary buyouts
before they make up their minds to rebuild.

Mr. Collier, the mayor, has long heard the argument that a rising sea will
ultimately force a retreat from Dauphin Island and similar places.

“I’m not going to say that’s wrong,” he said. “But somebody needs to tell
me, how are we going to get there?”

Art Deco (Wayne A. Fox)
art.deco.studios at gmail.com
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