NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 9, 2005

Professions of shock about the extent of the New Orleans disaster may be understandable from the broader public, but not from Louisianans themselves. Moreover, the city's vulnerability was well documented and Katrina was the most predicted disaster in recent memory, says the Wall Street Journal's Holman W. Jenkins Jr.

With public awareness growing, Jenkins questions whether the federal government will contemplate some adjustment to policies that amount to a powerful inducement for people to build in fundamentally vulnerable areas. Consider:

  • In 1968, Washington got into the flood insurance business as a way to make property owners finally bear the cost of their own recurrent bailouts, but it didn't help; the money flowing to flood victims through all channels has grown geometrically, subsidizing ever more risk taking.
  • Some homeowners have collected payments, over a few years, several times the worth of their houses, and often homes not only are replaced but are built bigger and more ornate each time.
  • Cities and localities have no reason to deprive themselves of the tax base by zoning against development on their floodplains if Washington will pay them to rebuild each time.

Bob Sheets, then-head of the National Hurricane Center, described the aftermath of Hurricane Frederic in 1979, saying it was like an urban renewal program. He said that kind of thing takes place almost anywhere you have had a big hurricane strike.

According to Jenkins, the only safe way to rebuild New Orleans is to darken the city's neighborhoods behind cross-secting walls and ever higher levees -- or to spend unfathomable sums to lift the town five or ten feet above the surrounding waters. As Louisianans themselves are likely to conclude, a better approach -- perhaps the only sane approach -- is to relinquish the city's lowest elevations back to the waters.

Source: Holman W. Jenkins Jr., "Gambling with Your Money, Their Lives," Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2005.

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