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That optimism helps explain why construction along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and both coasts of Florida continues to boom, even though hurricane season is an annual affair. Keep in mind that dense coastal construction is the main reason storms are causing more and more damage every year in the U.S. More than 50% of Americans live in coastal areas, which means heavy weather increasingly runs into people and property. Also, the elimination of wetlands to make room for development means there's less and less of a buffer zone to absorb storm surges and mitigate damage. So our biggest problem is not the weather but our romantic urge to live near water.
When Americans cannot be trusted to save themselves, the government does it for them--at least that's the story of mandatory car insurance, seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But when it comes to preventing disasters, the rules are different. The message, says Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association, is consistent: "We will help you build where you shouldn't, we'll rescue you when things go wrong, and then we'll help you rebuild again in the same place."
In New Orleans, for example, many people in positions of power knew full well that the entire city should not be rebuilt after Katrina. They were quietly counting on the Federal Government to play the heavy. FEMA was expected to release new building rules for the first time since 1984. The rules would determine which areas and structures the Federal Government would insure against floods. Everything else would be lost, and the feds would be the perfect scapegoats. In April FEMA released its new guidelines. But instead of banning development in areas that are extremely likely to flood again, FEMA blinked. The major new requirement was that some houses be built 3 ft. off the ground--even though Katrina flooded up to 20 ft. in some neighborhoods.
Nationwide, only 20% of American homes at risk for floods are covered by flood insurance. Private insurers largely refuse to offer it because floods are such a sure thing. In certain flood-prone areas, the Federal Government requires people to buy policies from the government's National Flood Insurance Program to get a mortgage loan. But the program has never worked even remotely as insurance should. It has never priced people out of living in insanely risky areas. Instead, too few places are included in the must-insure category, and premiums are kept artificially low. This year, despite brave talk about finally fixing the program, Congress caved in to short-sighted constituents and real estate interests and failed to make major changes.