Comprehensive plans at the county or municipal level. Yawn. Why bother? Isn't this a "free" country, anyway?
Well, we've been yawning too long. A significant chunk of the $200-billion-plus bill from the Katrina-Rita hurricanes might have been avoided if there'd been tough, realistic plans to deter development in exposed coastal areas through buffer zones, wetlands protection, tough building codes and relocating settlements to higher land.
Why? A deep-seated anti-government, anti-planning culture that has paralyzed reasonable controls along the Gulf Coast.
At a minimum, suggests Raymond Burby, a University of North Carolina-based analyst of natural-disaster planning efforts, state governments should enact meaningful building codes and oblige local governments to draw up comprehensive plans.
Burby has prepared a map showing that the country's only solid belt of states with neither state building codes nor comprehensive-plan requirements are right in the heart of hurricane country: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
One is left to wonder: If these states hate planning so much, should the rest of us have to pick up the bill when disaster strikes?
But don't blame the states alone, says Burby. A huge chunk of blame, he argues, belongs to the federal government. Washington, he argues, actually encourages intensive development in areas exposed to natural hazards. Unwise development is fostered by federally constructed levees that may give way in heavy storms. It's encouraged by income-tax write-offs for lost property. It's encouraged by generous disaster-relief payments.
And perhaps most of all, it's encouraged by the 37-year-old National Flood Insurance Program, which rarely charges high-enough premiums to cover storm losses — and now faces a humongous deficit, which we'll all pay, as a result of Katrina and Rita.
In recent years, the taxpayers' exposure has soared with intensive development, even on extraordinarily exposed barrier islands, along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. In a sort of vicious circle, availability of federally backed insurance encourages vacation homes and other structures at the most exposed locations. Then, when they're lost in hurricanes, developers rush back in, arguing federal insurance will cover new investors' risks.
But the blindness goes further. After the massive Midwestern floods of 1993, a 30-person panel of the nation's top water experts, headed by retired Gen. Gerald Galloway, presented a menu of steps to save money, land and lives in the future.
But neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations followed up on major proposals. Neither administration accepted advice to order federal agencies to allow less building in flood-prone areas. Nor to have the Army Corps of Engineers give environmental quality equal importance with economic development in considering water projects.
Congress, for its part, turned a deaf ear on legislation to guide states and localities about what to do — or not do — to sensitive land along waterways that provides buffers against flooding.
So across the U.S., highly questionable development marches on. One can only hope that Katrina, America's most devastating storm in a century, will wrench us to our senses.
And what's a sustainable approach and smart new federal-state relationship?
It needs to start, says Burby, with the federal government giving up its mistaken idea that planning and regulation of land is solely the responsibility of state and local governments. The federal government sets standards for wetlands, air and water quality — so why not critical land-use principles?
Given that any community in America will cry out for aid in an emergency, why not require every city, town and region to produce a meaningful land-use plan with a checklist of steps (and building codes) to minimize hurricane, earthquake, hillside fire and other perils?
And so that aggrandizing real-estate-development interests don't control the process, let citizens be deeply involved in the planning. When citizens start to grasp the sustainable alternatives for living with hazards, writes Burby, "they mobilize and begin to insist" that elected officials make decisions leading to long-term sustainability.
Sparing, saving, thinking, planning: Why not?
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
© 2005 Seattle Times