“Natural” Disaster Losses Driven by a Building Boom in America’s “Red Zones”
The Huffington Post, once again demonstrating that it is determined to move beyond profiting from unpaid bloggers or aggregated content, has published an extraordinary investigative report on the development rush that put so many coastal communities in harm’s way when the superstorm struck two weeks ago.
The article explains, as others have, that the storm was extraordinary compared to anything in recent memory, but hardly a worst case. The prime factor behind the huge losses was not the meteorology, but this:
Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear.
In the end, a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms.
When I first read the piece last night, it immediately harked back to the devastating Colorado fires last summer, where this same issue — runaway development in a danger zone — was also revealed best by an online journalism effort — in that case undertaken by I-News, an innovative partnership involving nonprofit and for-profit news enterprises. Read this passage from “Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger” and listen to the echoes:
In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones – the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires. Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone….
Today, 1.1 million Coloradans live in more than half a million homes in red zones across the state, an I-News analysis found. That’s one of every four homes and one of every five people in the state. In some counties, including Pitkin – home to Aspen – Teller and Summit counties, more than 90 percent of the population lives in a red zone.
As the number of people in red zones has exploded, so has the number of fires – and the damage each did.
Notice a pattern?
I’ll offer just one more example for now.
Read Susan Saulny’s important 2007 article, “Development Rises on St. Louis Area Flood Plains, which describes the building boom around St. Louis in areas that were underwater in the great Mississippi River flood of 1993. While much of that development is behind levees, hydrologists note that levees don’t prevent flooding so much as force it into another community. The article features the important analysis of flood plain development by Nicholas Pinter, a geologist at Southern Illinois University, most notably in his 2005 commentary in Science magazine titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back on U.S. Floodplains.”
Please click here to read a 2011 interview I conducted with Pinter on this pattern, and some ways to break it.
One way, as I wrote recently, is for President Obama and the next Congress to convene experts and reexamine federal programs that, in the end, boost losses in such unnatural disasters.
[U]npreparedness requires, one might say, quite a lot of preparation. We build in places prone to flooding. We do that largely because subsidies encourage it. Federal flood insurance is a way the entire country subsidizes building and rebuilding in places destined for repeated hits.
We rely on overhead lines to bring electricity, lines vulnerable to falling trees. And when they fall, we put them right back. Underground lines are more expensive. But if you have to keep repairing the overhead lines…
We’ve created coastal bowling-pin communities; we set ‘em up and the weather takes ‘em down.