Big natural disasters don't need to be big human disasters. California proved that in its preparation and response to recent catastrophic wildfires – putting New Orleans to shame. But not all the lessons from such calamities have yet to be learned. Just look at Florida.
Rather than allow market signals of higher insurance rates to force changes in where and how people live in hurricane-prone areas, the state recently put taxpayers on the hook by promising to be the insurer of last resort. Government is now the largest insurer in Florida. Another major storm could overwhelm its revenues.
Now, having recognized that Floridians face an unbearable financial hit, state officials are desperately pressuring Congress to set up a subsidized, national "catastrophe fund" that would bail out homeowners who choose to live in disaster-prone areas. A bill is moving quickly on Capitol Hill.
Florida needs to take a cue from California.
Not only has California allowed higher insurance rates to send signals to homeowners who live recklessly in risky danger zones, it is also imposing tougher property standards. In San Diego County especially, officials have learned many lessons from the 2003 wildfires – the largest in California's recent history – that killed 16 people and destroyed 2,458 homes.
In a new defensive policy known as "shelter in place," the county set construction and landscape codes in 2004 for new homes in fire-prone areas. These included the use of noncombustible roof materials, indoor sprinklers, fire-resistant vegetation, and a 100-foot-wide protection perimeter.
The result? In five new subdivisions that met those codes, this month's wildfires raced by them and not a single house was lost.
In addition, San Diego County has removed much of the area's fire-vulnerable underbrush. It set up a mass notification system that helped quickly evacuate more than half a million people in danger of the fast-moving flames.
Fire-fighting help from the state and federal governments was well coordinated. And evacuees were well cared for, especially the 10,000 people who sought refuge in Qualcomm Stadium (unlike the disaster in New Orleans' Superdome after the 2005 Katrina hurricane).
Still, California, like much of the arid West, has much to do to solve the problem of people living close to tinder-dry forest areas. In the past four years, California alone has lost 1.8 million acres to wildfire. In July, Allstate Corp. stopped issuing homeowners' insurance for what it called "catastrophe-prone" California. That has led some of the state's lawmakers in Congress to sound like those from Florida and seek a federal bail-out program for at-risk homeowners.
But such moves need to be resisted until states with a high number of natural disasters use better zoning, building codes, and other measures to reduce risky home building. In the Gulf, for instance, the US Army Corps of Engineers is considering a voluntary buyout of 17,000 houses hit by Katrina and in the most hurricane-prone areas.
Despite the loss of life and homes from the recent fires in California, an example was set for the nation in dealing with disasters. Other states should follow.