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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Floyd's Floods

Air Date: Week of

In the aftermath of a damaging coastal hurricane, the federal government’s low-cost flood insurance program is coming under attack for encouraging wealthy homeowners and developers to build - and rebuild - in high-risk, environmentally sensitive areas along the shore. Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many communities along the Atlantic seaboard are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Floyd. It may take months before life returns to normal in places like North Carolina, where the storms killed dozens of people, millions of farm animals, and caused billions of dollars of property damage. And as the rebuilding gets underway, so does a debate over Federal disaster assistance. Some critics say not everyone deserves the government's help. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman reports.
(News broadcast. Dramatic music and voice-over: "Hurricane Watch: This season's most powerful storm moves up the East Coast. Stay with ...")

WEGMAN: Hurricane Floyd was coast to coast news, a national event as it pounded the Atlantic shore. President Clinton flew to storm-battered North Carolina to promise the nation would help local communities rebuild.

(Audience applause)

CLINTON: We know we have a responsibility as members of the American family to help you get back on your feet again. It's nothing to be ashamed of here; people who need it ought to take it.

(Cheers and applause)

WEGMAN: However, much of the aid will be provided by a controversial program that some contend is harming the environment and soaking the American taxpayer: The National Flood Insurance Program. Since 1968 the Federal government has gone where the insurance industry would not: beachfronts and river valleys. The program has a simple goal: offer low-cost insurance to people in high-risk areas, so long as property owners take steps to protect their homes and businesses from floods and hurricanes. Critics claim the program itself has been a disaster. They say it encourages people to build in places where stilts and levees and seawalls can't really protect them, like the coastal communities of North Carolina.

PLATT: And no matter what you build there and how well you build it, it's going to fall in the water.

WEGMAN: Geography professor Rutherford Platt of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events.

PLATT: When we come to rebuilding roads, sewer lines, beaches, and other infrastructure for the benefit of extremely expensive rental properties, resort properties, convention centers, this is very questionable.

WEGMAN: And costly. Although the flood insurance program collects premiums, it does not charge enough to cover storm-related claims. Currently it's more than half a billion dollars in the red, a deficit covered by taxpayers. In addition, the program does not prevent people from rebuilding in precarious places. More than a third of all claims are so-called repetitive losses. The result, says critic Cornelia Dean, is an assault not only on the treasury but on the environment. Ms. Dean is science editor at The New York Times and the author of Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches. She says that storm-proofing a building site can cause nearly as much damage as constructing the building itself.

DEAN: When people build those kinds of things on the beach, when they build walls or revetments or what have you, they are, I think, making a choice between their building and the beach. And they are deciding that they would rather prevent their building from falling into the sea than save their beach.

WEGMAN: The Federal Insurance Administrator, Joanne Howard, defends her program. For one, she says, it does make people build safer homes.

HOWARD: And that has changed the face of America. And in fact, flying over, look at the areas in, say, the Outer Banks now. You see houses on stilts or not down on the sand. That does reduce the vulnerability to flood.

WEGMAN: And Ms. Howard says it's likely that some people would be building on the beach even without federal insurance. However, she acknowledges that politics and emotion do have some influence. With mega-disasters like Hurricane Floyd, it's hard for policy makers to say some victims deserve aid and others do not.

HOWARD: There is this constant pressure for a president or for a governor or members of Congress to go after people who have had some devastation and to say we're going to help you rebuild.

WEGMAN: Politicians may find themselves saying that more often. Coastal communities are continuing to grow, and scientists say global climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman.



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