Challenging the Rush to Rebuild

Justin Gillis outlines some harsh criticisms of disaster response efforts that rebuild without rethinking – and how much it's costing taxpayers across the country.
November 20, 2012, 5am PST | Ryan Lue
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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some $30 billion will be issued in disaster relief and assistance to help return communities to stable, working, livable condition. Yet the critical moment of a disaster response is not in the rebuilding of a place but the changes it undertakes to ease the blow the next time around.

As Gillis points out, "Since 1979, nearly a dozen hurricanes and large storms have rolled in and knocked down houses, chewed up sewers and water pipes and hurled sand onto the roads." And yet homeowners across the country continue to flock to the shores, rebuilding entire communities just as they were before, invariably at enormous taxpayer expense.

Partly to blame are generous subsidies for flood insurance and new infrastructure – the Stafford Act provides federal dollars for 75 percent of repairs to storm-damaged roads and utilities. Perhaps just as much to blame are attitudes toward disaster planning.

“We’re Americans, damn it,” quips North Carolina Geologist Robert S. Young, capturing the response strategy in many communities. “Retreat is a dirty word.”

Meanwhile, a number of Vermont towns that fortified inadequate culverts after Hurricane Irene last year are still struggling for reimbursement from FEMA.

In some communities, resistance to change is strong, and solutions are scarce. “The best thing that could possibly come out of Sandy is if the political establishment was willing to say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about how we do this differently the next time,’ ” said Young. “We need to identify those areas — in advance — that it no longer makes sense to rebuild.”

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Published on Sunday, November 18, 2012 in The New York Times
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