Needed: National Disaster Program
In case you haven't heard, Hurricane Sandy left a big mess in its wake, and FEMA hasn't fixed it all yet. Why am I not surprised?
Even an administration hell-bent on re-election could not deliver a perfect response to tens of millions of voters in various states of desperation and disarray. Nor should it be expected to.
Folks, it's just not that simple. Nature wins. Even as George Bush was pilloried for the slow FEMA response after Katrina hit the Gulf, the ground game was being held up by squabbling locals, and miscommunication and incompetence at all levels of government.
This is a big part of what constitutes a disaster, and try as we might, we are never going to reach a response level acceptable to thousands of homeless, hungry, cold people. In addition to being discomforted and possibly sick or injured, these folks get very testy.
There is a limit to what can be accomplished in a short time frame when there is no power, when roads are impassable, public transportation is shut down, fuel is unavailable, and thousands of structures are leveled.
None of this is to say we shouldn't try to do our very best; nor is it to say that we should be satisfied even when we do. There is always something to be learned and improved upon.
With several days' warning, it would seem that more people could have evacuated, and that emergency supplies could have been positioned nearer to threatened areas. Still, people will be people, and the urge to remain on home turf is a very primal one. Nobody wants to believe it could happen to him.
Now there is suddenly talk of erecting surge barriers around New York at a cost estimated at $28 billion - so far. This is a tough call. While New York is clearly the single most important city in the country, it is also one of the least defensible. As Sandy demonstrated, there are large areas just above sea level, and defending them would divert water to any nearby unprotected areas, increasing the threat to them, and so on.
As time passes, coastline population continues to increase. Here's a thought: Don't live there. In 1980, 33 million people lived in shoreline Atlantic and Gulf communities. At present growth rates, which will perhaps now slow a bit, it is estimated that number will be 133 million by 2020.
Sure, it seems attractive - until the next hurricane. Costal population is encouraged by the federal flood insurance program, which charges below actuarially accurate rates and is subsidized by the rest of us. Sandy will bankrupt that program, and Congress will undoubtedly pony up more money we don't have.
We have lost something over half our wetlands to development. Wetlands absorb some of the shock of a storm surge and help reduce erosion, which is eating up the Atlantic coast at up to six feet a year. They also provide habitat for many species.
We need a national disaster relief program. There is a nearly endless variety of disasters that can occur anywhere - earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, floods. But it would be very helpful if building codes were firmed up. A typical frame structure doesn't stand much of a chance if any of those events strikes it with full force.
Still, we all have to live somewhere, and there are more of us every day. Communities grew up around water when it was essential for transportation and domestic use. Those things remain important, of course, but that doesn't mean you have to build 50 feet from a shoreline.
Dealing with the economic consequences of reconstruction and property values would be a gargantuan task, but wouldn't it make sense to take this opportunity, if you can call it that, to relocate some of the people displaced by Sandy farther inland?
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at fwolferman@ sbcglobal.net.
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