2005 September 10 Saturday
Federal Disaster Relief Money Encourages Irresponsible Behavior

Climate researcher Roy Spencer says a repeat of the Miami hurricane of 1926 would cost $110 billion.

Adjusted to 2004 dollars, Hurricane Andrew of 1992 was the costliest hurricane on record, at about $44 billion. It remains to be seen whether the Katrina event will exceed this record. If it does, it will be more attributable to the desire of so many people to live and build in coastal areas than to the inherent strength of the hurricane itself. Indeed, if we ask the question, "which land falling hurricane in U.S. history would be the most expensive if it happened today?" the clear front-runner would be the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. It is estimated that, if that hurricane occurred today, the costs would reach about $110 billion.

The US government and state governments in the American southeast should adopt policies aimed at shifting more of the costs of hurricane strikes onto the people who choose to live in areas where hurricane damage can rack up huge costs.

For example, how about regional taxes in ocean front counties that would pay for disaster relief and repair of public infrastructure? Also, tougher building codes could reduce damages. Florida has probably gone furthest on this score with a succession of increasingly tougher building codes that require elevation of houses to reduce the risk of flooding damage and that also require better anchoring of roofs against high winds.

Who pays when hundreds of thousands of people become refugees from predictable disasters? We do. But these people shouldn't be living in flood zones in the first place.

Update: Henry Petroski says raise New Orleans above sea level.

Durham, N.C. -- When civil engineers start planning for rebuilding New Orleans, there are few historical examples to guide them. Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski says the closest example he can think of is the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane which, like Katrina, left a city partially underwater.

To protect Galveston from a recurrence, engineers found a bold and challenging solution that Petroski said may be necessary to save New Orleans: they raised the entire city.

“There have been massive floods before, but few have covered such an extensive urban area as 21st- century New Orleans,” said Petroski, an author of several books on engineering and society. “Galveston was devastated. What the engineers basically did was to raise it. Every low point of the city was higher than before, and some places were quite a bit higher, so if there was another flood the houses would be above it. In addition, they built a sea wall, but then they had backed this up so that the houses were higher if water did get through.”

Petroski, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ History and Heritage Committee, said he doesn’t know if engineers would consider something similar for New Orleans. “The challenges would be enormous. The city is so much larger than Galveston was in 1900. But, on the other hand, they have many more resources and tools that the Galveston engineers didn’t have.”

Petroski provides no cost estimate for this undertaking. Abandonment of the lower lying areas would probably be cheaper. My basic questions:

  • What was the market value per acre of land in the flooded areas?
  • What is the cost per acre to raise each acre above sea level? Keep in mind that dirt costs are just part of the costs. New roads would need to get paved at the higher level. Houses would need to get rebuilt or lifted to higher levels.

If the cost of raising the land up exceeds the market value of the land the exercise would be wealth destroying and dumb. How much does an acre-foot of dirt go for? Anyone know what the cost is in your area delivered by truck?

Also, Petroski does not address the problem of continued subsidence. A place that does flood subsidies faster than a place that does flood. Many areas of NO that are below water level did not used to be. To make this worthwhile the level would need to be raised high enough to account for 50 or 100 or some other number of years of future subsidence.

Also, there's still the additional cost of preventing the delta from eroding all the way up to NO.

If New Orleans is worth saving by lifting it up with dirt then property taxes on the property of New Orleans should pay for the lifting. If the property there is not worth enough to pay for the lifting then raising up New Orleans is not cost justifiable.

Update II: Writing for the Wall Street Journal Sharon Begley reports that disaster experts see Hurricane Katrina as an unnatural disaster created by human folly.

As Theodore Steinberg argues, God is getting a bum rap. "This is an unnatural disaster if ever there was one, not an act of God," says Prof. Steinberg, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. "If the potential for mass death and destruction from extreme weather existed anywhere in the U.S., it existed in New Orleans."

Yes, building a city in a delta and putting levees around it while it gradually sinks from natural subsidence is a pretty stupid thing to do. But in America the big move to build on hurricane coasts is far from the only foolishness humans are doing on mass scale. The construction of mobile home parks in tornado alley is taking its toll as well.

It isn't only hurricanes whose destructiveness has been increased by human actions. Tornadoes turn mobile homes into matchsticks (one of Prof. Steinberg's first jobs was at a New York brokerage firm, where he followed the trailer-home industry). From 1981 to 1997, he found, more than one-third of all deaths from tornadoes occurred among people living in mobile homes; federal regulations didn't require them to withstand high winds, and a 1974 statute actually pre-empted stricter state standards with more lax federal ones.

The New York Times reports that the overreaction of federal disaster relief spending has created conditions for big wasteful federal contracts.

Some experts warn that the crisis atmosphere and the open federal purse are a bonanza for lobbyists and private companies and are likely to lead to the contract abuses, cronyism and waste that numerous investigations have uncovered in post-war Iraq.

"They are throwing money out, they are shoveling it out the door," said James Albertine, a Washington lobbyist and past president of the American League of Lobbyists. "I'm sure every lobbyist's phone in Washington is ringing off the hook from his clients. Sixty-two billion dollars is a lot of money - and it's only a down payment."

John Tierney of the New York Times points out that the Army Corps of Engineers was not lacking for funds but Congress critters had earmarked the money for their pet projects rather than for the biggest threats.

Or suppose the investigators try to find out why the Army Corps of Engineers didn't protect New Orleans from the flood. Democrats have blamed the Iraq war for diverting money and attention from domestic needs. But that hasn't meant less money for the Corps during the past five years. Overall spending hasn't declined since the Clinton years, and there has been a fairly sharp increase in money for flood-control construction projects in New Orleans.

The problem is that the bulk of the Corps's budget goes for projects far less important than preventing floods in New Orleans. And if the investigators want to find who's responsible, they don't have to leave Capitol Hill.

Most of the Corps's budget consists of what are lovingly known on appropriations committees as earmarks: money allocated specifically for members' pet projects. Many of these projects flunk the Corps's own cost-benefit analysis or haven't been analyzed at all. Many are jobs that Corps officials don't even consider part of their mission, like building sewage plants, purifying drinking water or maintaining lakeside picnic tables.

But local governments ought to protect their own jurisdictions against flooding anyway.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 September 10 01:12 PM  Politics Money

ron said at September 10, 2005 1:22 PM:

well said

KevinM said at September 10, 2005 2:59 PM:

Fill dirt in Houston is available free for the price of haulage. Developers are required to contribute floodwater detention ponds in order to develop acreage. The dirt that was taken out of the pond is available to raise developed land. The flood control district also aquires land along drainages and constructs detention ponds, yeilding more dirt. Several subdivisions near the Brazos river are also extensively leveed and floodgated, no doubt paid for by the developer.

Right next to the Mississippi, NOLA and its environs have a low cost supply of fill dirt from dredging. But the locals there will have to have the gumption to use it on their own dime. From what I've seen, they'll want Uncle to pay for it, so it will be done half-assed, if at all.

Marvin said at September 10, 2005 3:52 PM:

I suggest that New Orleans be rebuilt as a "City In The Clouds," like that floating city in "The Empire Strikes Back," or the one in the original "Star Trek" series. A Manhattan Project style research program into anti-gravitics could certainly make the necessary breakthroughs given enough funding. After that, no city at all need suffer the ravages of flooding, earthquakes, or other afflictions of grounded cities. Personal anti-grav suits would make transportation much easier on the feet. Babies could learn to fly before they learn to walk. Don't let the little poopers leave the ground without their nappies, though.

Hugh Angell said at September 10, 2005 6:10 PM:

We're focused on hurricanes right now but tomorrow it could be a 8+ earthquake in California or a volcano in the Cascades or even a tsunami from across the sea. It
is impossible to 'engineer' against nature. All we do is scratch at the surface and
nail things together.

I'm not against strict building codes. Look at the crap the people we saw in New
Orleans living in. Something like 50% was built before 1960 or 50 and it is hardly
worth saving, excluding historical structures, which by and large didn't flood. That
brings me to a important point.

Why didn't the French Quarter or Garden District flood. Lemme guess. Might it be that
those who lived in New Orleans 100, 200 or more years ago understood the problem. They
built there homes and businesses on the high ground. Kind of like that everywhere in the
United States I think. Those who got there first looked around and took the choicest
pieces of real estate. Makes sense.

Problem is we let developers shoehorn people into every adjacent piece of land around
the 'good stuff' so they can sell agricultural property as prime residential real estate.
Kind of stupid really. Where they don't have land next to the good stuff we even let them
make it and then wonder why it all falls down when there is an earthquake or the ocean
gets cranky.

I look around my city ( Richmond, Virginia) and I see that the colonials built their homes
on Church Hill high above the banks of the James River. I travel around today to inspect
new homes and I find their crawl spaces full of water! The developer wants $500,000 for
the McMansion too. Crappy homes, built on sh*tty lots, financed with zero down and interest
only loans. Yeah that's the ticket! Who are we foolin?

If real estate is so precious. If homes are heirlooms to be handed down generation to
generation... isn't that what our ancestors did... then let's build them well and put them
on decent ground. If that means we have to live in highrises built of reinforced concrete
and steel if we want to live next to the sea so be it. Living 200 or 300 feet up in a modern building isn't so bad. Costs you a fortune in New York, Chicago or San Francisco.
Give me 1500 square feet in a Condo Tower anyday over a 4000 square foot pile of rubble
on the Red Neck Riviera is my view. If I win the lottery I can buy that home on the bluff
overlooking the ocean but until then I think we'd all better remember the ocean is no place
for cheap sailboats or cheap homes.

Stephen said at September 10, 2005 9:18 PM:

Well said Hugh.

Stephen said at September 10, 2005 9:32 PM:

That said, I suppose Hugh's argument is premised on the idea of house = home, whereas we are really living in an age of house = speculative investment.

ray truitt said at September 20, 2006 1:05 PM:

let's fill it. it makes no sense what so ever to rebuild a disaster. the flooded area of new orleans was a disaster in urban planing; a disaster in social planing; a disaster in economic planing; a disaster in energy planing. let's recycle the buildings, pipes, wires, asphalt, etc and raise the land to at least the 100 year flood plain plus 2 feet, hire the worlds leading city planers, socialogist, economist, futurist, philosophers, and others to create a truly working city of our future. Now is the time. Not since the founding of philidelphia have we had such a wonderful oportunity to create a working, thriving, vibrant city. Let's not waste the gift.
in terms of detail the current land holders could be bought out with both money and land options. The money would help them find a new home and the land option would help them return to the new, new orleans. The money could be found from disolving FEMA, since it doesn't work anyway who would miss it and the land options could be found from the tax roles.
yes, virginia, FEMA was a great idea that was lost in execution. It is my personal wish that FEMA would work, it really could work, it just needs a leader with a vision for prevention and recovery. This leader when found is probably a charismatic architect or an engineer who can find ways to reward people for being people of vision and execution. This person probably has no military experience what so ever and probably has no upper management corporate experience either.
it is only a matter of time before the next earthquake, civil riot, blizzard, oil embargo, hurricane, tornado, terrorist extravaganza, disease outbreak, forest fire, tusanami, or something else. there are choices and there are consequences. the choices and largely the consequences are ours for the taking.
bring on the dirt!

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