As Sandy's Tab Comes Due, It's Time to Rethink Flood Insurance Everywhere (Including Dallas)
Two experts from the Monterrey Institute of International Studies have an op-ed piece in The New York Times this morning advocating the abandonment of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is about to stick us taxpayers for $57 billion in rebuilding costs from Hurricane Sandy. If the experts want to know the full story, they should get away from the coasts and come to Dallas.
The argument is that the flood insurance program incentivizes risky real estate development and then sticks the taxpayers for the tab when the dice roll bad. With climate change loading the dice big-time, the flood insurance game is bad for us taxpayers all the way around.
Hey, love your house, but we don't really want to buy it.
But if somebody took a hard look at our Trinity River project, they would see that the game gets fixed long before it ever gets to the question of flood insurance. In 2009 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the Trinity River levees through downtown Dallas had degraded so drastically that the corps could no longer certify them as providing even minimal flood protection . The city of Dallas did what it could to repair problems the corps had found in the levees, but an even bigger parallel campaign was launched to lobby Congress and the corps for some kind of a break. It didn't take long.
Even though the corps had "decertified" the Trinity Levees for flood protection, it announced it was taking itself out of the Trinity River levee system recertification business, turning that over instead to the city of Dallas, which would be allowed to recertify its own levees. Gee, thanks.
At the same time, the corps announced it was kind of rethinking the whole business of flood safety standards, just sort of rejiggering it in a way we probably could never understand, don't you know. Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan let slip at a meeting that the new standard for the levees was no longer what the corps used to call an "800-year flood standard" and would be more of a "500-year flood standard" instead.
I was there, and I was struck by her statement, because back when I was in grade school, 500 was less than 800. When I asked her after the meeting if that did not mean the standard was being lowered, she said, "Well remember, 800-year and 500-year are pretty daggum close. It sounds significant but it has to do with probability and statistics."
Daggum! Who needs probability and statistics?
Later we saw a heartwarming display of bipartisanship in Dallas when Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democratic Congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson joined hands across the aisle to exempt the Trinity River from large portions of federal environmental law. They did it with a legislative sleight of hand, sticking what are called "riders" onto a defense appropriation act.
So the bill was: "X many billion dollars for troop pay, another X many for helicopters, X for helmets, and, oh yeah, the Trinity River in Dallas is exempt from federal law." The good senator's husband, by the way, makes his money -- a lot of money -- as a bond lawyer on big public works undertakings including the Trinity River project. What a way to run a railroad, eh?
I could go on. The Federal Flood Insurance Program is under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When it came time for them to weigh in on providing insurance for properties near the levees, they told me it wasn't their job to figure out if the levees are really safe or not. They just take everybody else's word.
Try to imagine that in the world of private insurance. Waldo wants car insurance; he looks drunk; he smells drunk; he walks drunk; but he's got a letter from his mom saying he's not drunk. OK, Waldo, we got you covered!
My point? This whole question of flood insurance isn't really about flood insurance. It's about national land use policy: We don't have any. Even more fundamentally it's about our political will as a people.
We have to tell developers, "If you want to build a condo tower in a flood zone, go for it, but do not call us for money when you get wiped out." And that means do not call our senators and Congress members.
We'll get there. We just need to get hit with a few more $57 billion tabs.
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