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Hurricane helper

FEMA's insurance policies promote repeated Katrina-style disasters.

November 20, 2005|David Helvarg | David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (, author of "Blue Frontier -- Dispatches from America's Ocean Wilderness" and "50 Ways to Save the Ocean." He's also editor of "The Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide."

THE FEDERAL Emergency Management Agency said last week that it has run out of money to pay insurance claims from this year's hurricanes. Not counting Wilma, the claims top $22 billion. So you'd think the troubled agency would be eager to reduce future disaster damage.

Apparently not. By cavalierly shoveling taxpayer money into insurance for development in high-risk coastal areas -- areas the private insurance industry has long since abandoned -- the agency is assuring that future hurricanes again do the sort of damage Katrina inflicted on the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, FEMA's willingness to insure property in places that are hurricane magnets is driving a coastal development boom that is destroying the fragile dunes, wetlands and marshes that act as the nurseries, filters and storm barriers of our living seas.

In the 1980s, 17 of the nation's 20 fastest-growing counties were coastal. Towns such as Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., Dauphin Island and Gulfshores, Ala., and North Captiva, Fla., exploded with floating casinos, condos, stilt homes, beach mansions, marinas and shopping malls just waiting to be knocked down when hurricanes began increasing in intensity in the 1990s.

Dauphin Island, Ala., reminds me of Key West when I was a kid: a relaxed place without a lot of commercial distractions from the magic of its open sky and rainbow-streaked waters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 04, 2005 Home Edition Current Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
FEMA: A Nov. 20 Current article about building on U.S. coasts stated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched the 1968 National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA was created in 1979 and now manages the program, which was originally administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

I first visited there five years ago to interview Dr. George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Fourteen miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest, with about 2,000 winter residents and as many as 15,000 summer visitors, Dauphin Island has been repeatedly hit and reshaped by tropical hurricanes, including Frederick in 1979, Danny in 1997, George in 1998, Ivan in 2004 and Dennis, Katrina and Wilma in 2005.

From the water, the island's narrow west end looks like a forest of wooden stilts atop which several hundred houses have been temporarily secured. The storm-eroded sand has retreated under their pilings, and you could fish off the decks of many of them. After Hurricane George, FEMA spent millions of tax dollars to protect the single road to the area, but without requiring any additional public access to what's left of the beach.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan delivered Dauphin a glancing blow, destroying 50 west-end homes and badly damaging another 100, leaving a rubble of wooden debris, grounded boats and two new ocean channels in its wake. Yet again, FEMA returned to help vacation-rental developers rebuild in harm's way.

On this visit to Dauphin, after Hurricane Katrina, there are more than 200 west-end homes destroyed (many of whose owners are collecting their FEMA insurance checks from last year), and also a new visitor to the area: the massive oil rig Ocean Warwick, grounded in the surf. Crozier and I pass through a police roadblock and hike down the beach amid an apocalyptic scene of broken and vanished stilt houses, downed power lines, flooded roads, buried cars and shallow quicksand. A $1.1-million protective sand berm built by FEMA after last year's hurricane has also vanished into the sea.

"The rush to rebuild is understandable. It's basic human sympathy," Crozier says, "but we have to build in a different way."

In 1968, FEMA, worried about the disaster risks faced by new beachfront residents, came up with a plan. If homeowners met certain basic safety standards in beachfront construction (like putting houses on stilts), they would qualify for a newly created National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA convinced Congress that this would reduce individual risk while shifting the burden of hurricane disaster relief onto policyholders. It would guarantee a large insurance pool by making the rates so inexpensive that lots of people would buy the policies.

This idea worked for a while -- about as long as a historic lull in Atlantic hurricane activity persisted through the 1970s and 1980s. But since the early 1990s, this natural 25- to 30-year cycle has both intensified and -- possibly -- become supercharged by fossil fuel-fired climate disruption that's heated the world's oceans and raised sea levels more than a foot. As soon as hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, George, Fran, Floyd, Isabel, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina and Rita started coming ashore, the program turned into a money loser and the largest financial exposure the federal government now faces. FEMA had insured more than $763 billion worth of property against flooding, with more than half of that in the Gulf region (42% in low-lying, hurricane-prone Florida).

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