Defying Mother Nature

How should we treat private decisions to live in the path of predictable natural disasters?

Mike O’Hare writes:

Update: (29/IX/05) Lindsay Beyerstein disagrees (cautiously) and I reply.

The intensity of Katrina may be in part due to global warming, but that a sizable hurricane would afflict the New Orleans area has been a certainty for many years. (Go here, select Louisiana, then all storms, then zoom in.)

That one or another of such storms would defeat the levee system and drown a city below sea level, along with its pumps, was also a certainty, just like the certainty that the Mississippi will overcome the Old River Control Structure and be captured by the Atchafalaya.

The questions raised by the current disaster apply in all the locations we have chosen to live in where habitation defies enormous natural forces and processes. It has been a certainty for years that a storm would wipe the barrier islands of coastal Mississippi and Alabama clear of structures, and that the Atlantic barrier islands will shift out from under their burden of vacation homes (shift back and forth is what barrier sandbars do), and that Boston, Memphis, and the Pacific Coast will see catastrophic earthquakes.

It’s not clear when is the right time to ask the tough questions about these uncontrovertible facts. Right after a disaster, it feels like piling on and blaming the victims. Afterwards, life returns to what feels like normal but is actually only typical. (Hurricanes, floods, fires, droughts, and earthquakes are all normal in their zones, though intermittent.) Once apparent normality has returned, the costs of taking the risks seriously look like a drag on doin’ bidness. Moreover, building levees requires levying taxes, which are known to be hazardous to the careers of elected officials. In this context, one can cite the persistent refusal of San Diego city and county voters to tax themselves for reasonable fire protection and services in the years before last year’s completely predictable fires.

Here are some of the questions we need to learn to ask:

* Does it make sense to inhabit, for example, the New Orleans basin at all? Actually, it might; it would be interesting to see whether the net value created there since the 18th century outweighed the losses we’ve just witnessed. But even if it made sense to hang on until Katrina, it might not make sense to try again. Transhipment from ocean-going to river vessels is not nearly as important, in a world with railroads and highways, as it used to be, and the Gulf Coast has natural harbors much less liable to being drowned for months in a storm.

* Is it a national responsibility to maintain the levees and flood controls in Louisiana, or is that a cost-benefit decision that people who have chosen to live there should make with their own funds? Mark’s post links to a story deploring federal government failure to fix the levees. But might that “failure” have been exactly the right federal decision?

* Does anyone who chooses to live anywhere have a claim on everyone else’s purse to make his choice as safe as living in a less risky location, or is this a blatant case of moral hazard? [Full disclosure: I am writing this very near the northern California fault that is most likely to slip next. I live in a wood house with lots of hardware that will probably hold it together at that time, but may not, and I pay a fortune for earthquake insurance with a whopping deductible and copayment. When we have the Big One, anyone catching me expecting the government to buy me a new house is invited to humiliate me with this essay in any way possible, and I readily admit that the decision to live here at all may well be completely loony by the standards of reasonable people.]

* Does this flood management engineering make sense anyway? Confining the Mississippi is well known to increase flood risk in the long run, as is true for any large river flowing through flat land. In Louisiana, it has devastated the coastal wetlands that used to lie between the Gulf and New Orleans and that would reduce the intensity of a storm surge, never mind the other catastrophic though slow consequences of wetland destruction.

The people of Bangaladesh have to live in a river delta because their whole country is one. Americans, by contrast, inhabit a roomy country and do not have to put themselves in the path of catastrophes that are completely predictable except as to date and time in order to make a quick buck in real estate or enjoy the view and a nearby swim for a few or many years. We need to have a serious think about whether it’s the duty of the rest of us to subsidize these choices.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: