Lessons from disasters like Ike
America has tightened building codes in danger zones, but it also needs to stop building.
Nearly a week after Galveston Island took a severe beating from hurricane Ike, a Kroger grocery store has finally opened for business, grilling up fajitas for its employees. With the Texas island still not ready to take back evacuees, the open store is at least one encouraging sign of normalcy.
For that is the aim of rescue and relief workers, government officials, neighbors, and perfect strangers who all assist in the aftermath of any disaster – to help residents return to as normal a life as possible.
But normalcy has its downside in America's hazard-prone areas. If it means rebuilding exactly as everything was before the hurricane, fire, or earthquake, then business-as-usual is itself hazardous.
The country has learned to do some key things differently in the wake of several years of weather whammies. One of them is to adopt stricter building codes that save lives and money.
New building and landscaping standards spared five communities from San Diego's fierce fires last year. In 1992, when the worst mainland hurricane in US history slammed into Florida, 27 Miami-area houses built to hurricane-resistant standards suffered no structural damage, while other homes nearby were flattened.
Florida now has the most stringent hurricane building codes in the country. After Katrina and Rita in 2005, Gulf states caught on, with Louisiana, for instance, passing a statewide code. Structures along the Mississippi coast are being rebuilt on stilts.
Good job, except for this huge oversight. The rebuilding, with few exceptions, is taking place in the same spots that were wiped out. As naturally as snow falls, people want to build in warm places with beautiful beach vistas – no matter that they're on a vulnerable barrier island such as Galveston.
One thing that would discourage the pounding of pylons in obvious danger zones is market-priced property insurance. It's telling that private insurers have for the most part pulled out of the Gulf coastal areas. As of Nov. 30, State Farm won't renew even existing policies for customers within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
Customers have therefore swarmed to subsidized state insurance programs, and, of course, should these fail, there is always the National Flood Insurance Program. Or not. Congress is wrangling over renewal of the program, which expires Sept. 30. Sadly, both House and Senate bills perpetuate low-cost insurance that only encourages more building in dangerous zones.
In the absence of correcting market forces, populations along the coastal counties of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have popped up like beach umbrellas. In 1980, about 67 million people lived in these counties, according to the US Census Bureau. In 2006, just over 88 million. And little has discouraged developers – at least before the housing bust – from marching up the tinder-dry hills of California.
State and local governments should either wean themselves from taxpayer-subsidized, low-cost insurance – or block off the most vulnerable areas. It is possible. After the 1977 Red River flood, Grand Forks, in North Dakota, marked off a "no build" zone near the river. Two decades ago, South Carolina began a gradual retreat from the sea – redrawing its baseline at the shore every 10 years.
Now in Texas, the land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, is proposing that new coastal construction be set back at 60 times the erosion rate – for example, 60 feet for every foot of erosion. Before Ike, he was blasted by local officials who said the restrictions would erode development and resulting tax revenue.
With so much washed out to sea or piled up as debris, Galveston – and other communities – should be welcoming Mr. Patterson's proposal. To prepare for disasters, America should not just batten down, but step back.