WASHINGTON — Pontius Pilate-like, Congress has spent years pretending it has washed its hands of local land-use decisions. After all, wouldn't it be socialism or something worse if there actually were "federal land-use planning"?
But how about flood insurance? Hurricane Katrina's $23-billion hit has triggered a full-blown debate about the federal program that insures property in flood-prone areas. Critics are charging the program's rates are so cheap and its loopholes so broad that it actually puts pressure on local governments to permit new development in flood-prone areas — territory that should never be built on in the first place.
Responding to the crushing new costs, the Senate Banking Committee last month approved — unanimously — the most sweeping reforms ever in the 38-year history of the National Flood Insurance Program.
The program would continue but there would be a four-year phase-out of the huge yearly subsidies that Uncle Sam now pays for insurance premiums enjoyed by vacation homeowners, businesses and those who live in exposed locations and file severe repetitive-damage claims, which have cost taxpayers a stunning $7.6 billion.
This means that in the future, with owners paying true "actuarial" costs (in some cases double or triple their current payments), there will be fewer abuses such as a Houston house, valued at $114,000, that harvested $806,000 in FEMA insurance payments in 16 floods over 18 years.
But breaking the flood-pay, flood-pay cycle is just part of the challenge. FEMA elevation maps, identifying potential seriousness of flood damage and required building elevation off the ground, are up to 20 or 30 years old and in some places up to 15 feet in error. The Senate bill aims to get FEMA off the ball, moving rapidly on remapping. In many urbanizing areas, notes flood expert David Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation, conversion from pasture and forest to impervious streets, structures and parking lots makes water roar into basins at accelerated rates, dramatically increasing risk factors.
The time to get action, he notes, is soon after storms, when people's consciousness of flood peril is high. He points to FEMA's support of successful efforts to elevate, floodproof or move to higher ground about 28,000 homes and businesses after the great Midwest flood of 1993.
Indeed, says Conrad, the federal government should use its powers to shatter local complacency. Levees are a top example: "There are two kinds of levees — levees that have failed, and levees that will fail, with often catastrophic losses." The Senate bill signals a need to require flood insurance behind levees, a signal to owners of their risks.
Did someone say the federal government can — or even should — stay out of land use?
It never has, says former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt: "The historical reality is that the national government has been involved in land-use planning since the early days of the republic."
And Babbitt's examples, in his new book, "Cities in the Wilderness" (Island Press), aren't just canals or railways, interstate roads or the great dam and river systems of the American West. He points to how the Florida Everglades were nearly destroyed by state-sanctioned highways, water diversions, conversion to agriculture and encroaching development — until Congress saw the emergency, set down conditions for comprehensive land-use planning for the entire Everglades watershed — and funded the effort at $8 billion.
The key word, says Babbitt, is "conditionality" — not direct federal land-use control, but clear federally set conditions for big-time funding and assistance. The Everglades plan, for example, didn't emerge until serious flooding of south Florida and a warning from Congress — create a comprehensive Everglades solution based on land-use planning, then we'll help. With its South Florida Water Management District, the state restrained agriculture, created an urban boundary along the state's East Coast — and then got the mega-federal grant.
With global-warming-induced sea levels likely to rise 2 to 4 feet in this century, says Babbitt, storm-surge and flooding peril magnifies from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. The California Delta is also imperiled. Our opportunity? According to Babbitt, it's "to make the land-use component explicit, to reform national flood insurance, and introduce the conditionality for federal assistance that will have real impact."
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
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