Sunday, September 25, 2005

"To protect everything is to protect nothing."...Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.; Wall Street Journal Editorial

Holman Jenkins writes an editorial (Gambling with Your Money, Their Lives) that is required reading for all Washington politicians.

Using the foundation that Mr. Jenkins lays, the argument can be made that the irresponsible spending Congress is considering and the rebuilding of disaster prone areas is in itself a threat to national security.

Why? Because as a nation we don't have unlimited resources (money, time, leadership, 'brain power') and very few are echoing Mr. Jenkins' insightful claim that "To protect everything is to protect nothing." Directing our limited resources to areas like New Orleans - a city in the hurricane zone and under sea level (getting more so year over year) - is doubling-down on a bet that we have already lost.

There are some that will say this is a pesimistic view for the 'can-do come hell or high water' nation. That's a specious argument. By all means lets keep our 'can-do' spirit, but let's also learn the previous lessons of building in areas prone to high water. Let's follow the policies we have already developed that state we should discourage rebuilding in flood plains; if not to save money at a very minimum to alleve our fellow citizens of the heartache that follows in the wake of inevitable disasters.

Gambling with Your Money, Their Lives:


Food, water -- and laying blame. The human necessities have been on exhibit in the New Orleans flood catastrophe.

In the interests of having the argument heard, let's phrase a key question in a bipartisan manner: Will the federal government contemplate some adjustment to policies that amount to a powerful inducement for people to build in areas that are fundamentally vulnerable? Professions of shock about the extent of the New Orleans disaster may be understandable from the broader public, but not from Louisianians themselves. Their disaster was the most predicted disaster in recent memory. The city's vulnerability was well documented and this is one case where you can't blame the press for taking its eye off the ball.

The policy implications were not lost on congressmen and federal officials either. A screaming match three years ago concerned a House bill to charge market-based flood insurance premiums to homeowners who filed frequent claims. Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin (since retired) denounced the bill as "an assault on the culture of South Louisiana." He was right.

The bill's author, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, put the issue in less hysterical perspective: "The notion that the federal government is just going to shovel money to people in harm's way is misguided, and I personally think it's cruel." He was right too.

President Bush, during one of his landfalls in the disaster zone, promised to build Trent Lott a "fantastic new house" in Pascagoula. This would have been music to the ears of locals, a prelude to tendering an unlimited bill to federal taxpayers to
rebuild. However, what New Orleans residents may finally get out of last week's disaster is that the jig is up, the crazy contradictions of their city have reached an end point.

To rebuild in a way safe from a recurrence of the Katrina flood would be to darken the city's neighborhoods behind vivisecting walls and ever higher levees -- or to spend unfathomable sums to lift the town five or 10 feet above the surrounding waters. As Louisianians themselves are likely to conclude, a better approach -- perhaps the only sane approach -- is to relinquish the city's lowest elevations back to the waters. Originally known as the Crescent City because settlement was restricted to high land along the Mississippi, New Orleans could become the Crescent City again, focused on its historic districts and the tourism traffic they generate.

Indeed, all this must come to pass now that the city's wish-fed gamble against the odds has come a cropper, a bet that no sensible government would be willing to make again with even higher stakes.

Back in 1968, Washington was already in despair at what it had wrought and got into the flood insurance business as a way to make property owners finally bear the cost of their own recurrent bailouts. It didn't help. The money flowing to flood victims through all channels has grown geometrically, subsidizing ever more risk-taking. Legion are the tales of homeowners who, over a few years, collected payments several times the worth of their houses. Homes not only are replaced but are built bigger and more ornate each time. Cities and localities have no reason to deprive themselves of the tax base by zoning against development on their floodplains if Washington will pay them to rebuild each time.

Bob Sheets, then-head of the National Hurricane Center, described the aftermath of 1979's Hurricane Frederic. "It was like an urban renewal program out there. And that kind of thing takes place almost any place you've had a big hurricane strike."

Modern New Orleans was the ultimate expression of this high-rolling dynamic. In 2000, an unnamed city official succinctly explained the city's hurricane strategy to the trade publication Risk & Insurance: "We are below sea level and we do get floods sometimes, but it's not a real serious problem. You can still purchase flood insurance."

OK, we all use insurance as a substitute for hazards we are unable or unwilling to protect against. We buy fire insurance instead of fire-proofing our homes to a fare-thee-well.

But a corollary to the city's acceptance that sooner or later it would be destroyed by a hurricane (and rebuilt using insurance money) was a reliance on evacuation to spare human life in the event of a Category 4 or worse storm, of which there had been four since 1899. That would have meant evicting residents every time a hurricane threatened, a policy that likely would have collapsed after the first false alarm, had a decrepit municipal government cared enough to try it. Instead the city defaulted to an evacuation strategy that was tantamount to every man for himself until it's time to reassemble and collect the checks that will be rolling in.

It would have taken a heroic political effort to change this dynamic, equivalent to a decision to invade Afghanistan before 9/11. Nor is President Bush Superman, cape flapping in the wind as he personally braces up the levees. Of one thing you can also be sure: Tomorrow's inquisitors will overlook his real contribution to last week's mess -- his capitulation three years ago to the media and Congressional clamor to create a new homeland security department.

That agency was destined to become an instant monument to the law of diminishing returns, even if it served as a useful offering of waste and futility to allow Mr. Bush to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. It distorted the nation's domestic priorities, as if the country were besieged by terrorists (it's not), and predictably devolved into an exercise in pork barrel, unrelated to risk.

To protect everything is to protect nothing. Lost in the shuffle was apparently the capability to respond quickly to national disasters that are far more certain to occur, such as killer hurricanes. At least Katrina has put the terrorism threat back into perspective.



Post a Comment

<< Home