Gilbert Gaul shows unmistakably what we thought we knew all along: disaster relief and flood insurance have become a stealth entitlement for the wealthy. In his excellent The Geography of Risk, Gaul piles up the evidence through research, interviews and actual examination. It is a patient and relentless investigation. The government encourages the rich to build luxury second homes in floodplains, because they know the government will pay them to rebuild after a storm. And as these are often vacation homes, there’s no rush. The only stress is filing the paperwork.
Even in North Carolina, where it is illegal to claim the seas are rising, their Republican Senator works to make federal funds easily and quickly available, because North Carolinians “are entitled” to it. In Florida, where the former governor banned talk of rising seas by his staff, the federal government spends billions bailing out homeowners, rather than buying them out. After a hurricane, there isn’t a rush to relocate. There’s a rush to build even more.
Gaul examines the outrageous positions of people in North and South Carolina, Florida, Texas and (especially) New Jersey. He is thorough, fair and stunned. In Texas, there is simply no zoning. Anyone can build anything anywhere and the (federal) government will pay for repairs. In New Jersey, realtors forcibly oppose buyouts and other sustainability efforts as damaging - to their market. The planet is not a factor. Everywhere, small town mayors demand aid to armor their towns and won’t hear of efforts to move at-risk homeowners to safer grounds. If that means being a climate change denier, so be it. If it means ignoring what is plainly happening repeatedly in front of them, so be it. If it means taking an absurd position against the direct advice of all the experts around them, so be it.
Between disaster relief and flood insurance, the federal government has blown half a trillion dollars since 1950, mostly in just this decade. Forty billion (20%) are repetitive losses from people who rebuild and enlarge with federal dollars and get wiped out again, and again. And taxpayers continue to reinsure them. As dumb as the federal government looks in all this, state and local government look far worse. The combination of greed, selfishness, self-interest and hypocrisy is stomach-churning.
The main scam seems to be beach restoration. The Jersey Shore has lost about 200 feet of beach over its 141 mile length. Gaul says sand doesn’t sit still. It is constantly on the move between winds, rains, tides and storms. Building permanent and intensely dense communities on sand reefs is demonstrably unwise, but municipalities only look at tax revenue. More is better. Common sense never factors into their actions. So millions of tons of sand are dredged from the ocean every year and carefully spread over beaches in front of mansions to make the beaches much wider, only to wash away again, even the same year. Gaul calculates for New Jersey alone, 700 cubic yards of sand are replaced for each of the 19,000 homes packed onto the Jersey Shore. The cost to taxpayers is $32 million per mile, and the Corps of Engineers has a fifty year contract to top up the sand annually. This is madness writ large, and the book simply reports it as the way the American world works.
Because of the home density and the “improvements” (patios, driveways, tennis courts, swimming pools), there is very little natural surface still exposed in these areas. Rains cannot soak into the ground because of all the housing and paving. The result is frequent flooding, mold, teardowns and rebuilding. It is a way of life, paid for almost entirely by US taxpayers.
The whole federal flood insurance program is a massive scam. Private insurers won’t offer it because it is a guaranteed loser. The federal program is underpriced, overly generous, and even offers steep discounts to the worst offenders. There is no limit to the number of claims an insured can make, and no one need fear having their policy cancelled. No one will force them to leave the area, and buyback programs are tiny and insignificant when they exist at all. The insurance plan currently estimates the value of the floodplain buildings it insures at $100 billion – just in New York and New Jersey, Gaul says.
As the seas rise, as the storms dump bigger quantities of water, and the building density increases, as the economic loss becomes more and more important with higher populations, federal funding has become a critical entitlement – a guarantee of the beach life. And after every event, the rich move in to buy up and bundle properties, build suburban size and style homes and mansions, and make the payout problem even worse for next time. Gaul calculates there are seven million properties in floodplains.
The arrogance of the homeowners can be eyeopening. Gaul cites people on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina who objected to a maritime forest holding their barrier island together. They said it was blocking their view of the sea. They actually sued the town for holding back their property values. When the town declined to remove the forest for them, one of them simply started cutting it down.
The 1300 federal disasters since 1990 are a bad omen, as more and more weather events are declared disasters worthy of cash relief, and as the weather itself becomes more and more cantankerous. That people should simply not be allowed to build in floodplains is beyond the scope – of the nation. Other countries do it, but it will simply become a bigger and bigger problem in the USA. And federal taxpayers will foot the bill.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
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