Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Starting Point for Climate Change Adaptation: Get Rid of FEMA Funding for Natural Disasters

I know that sounds drastic, but what is it exactly that *requires* federal government involvement in disasters, really? Is it the scale? Is that we just don't believe that the states of New York or New Jersey can actually afford to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy? Maybe that's not fair, would a state like Louisiana be unable to survive another category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane? Or South Carolina?

Maybe they can't. Maybe they shouldn't. On an NPR show a couple of months ago, 0n a call-in show, a South Carolina resident expressed his love of hurricanes. He said he and his wife were surfers, and they live for the big waves produced by tropical storms. He said they save up vacation days to surf.

I wish I were the guest speaker on that show, because I would like to have dispensed the shame that caller deserved. The US government is in a constant state of fiscal crisis (due in no small part to the Tea Party contingency from that caller's home state of South Carolina), we are cutting back on defense, school lunches, environmental protection, and this surfer dude and his wife want taxpayer dollars to keep rebuilding houses and roads to barrier islands in South Carolina so they can surf.

In graduate school, one of my professors was conservative economist Thomas Hazlett. As one of Rush Limbaugh's closest friends, he frequently found students disagreeing with him. But Professor Hazlett and I found convergence once. After yet another wildfire in Santa Barbara that torched scores of multiple-million-dollar homes, a TV news reporter was interviewing a Santa Barbara resident, a woman who, in her time of distress was wearing some animal fur clothing and carrying a toy dog in her arm, bemoaned, "this is the third time that my house has burned to the ground on this very spot!" Professor Hazlett's reaction: "NO! Really? Do you think it's a coincidence??"

There is no reason that Joe the Plumber should be paying for the reconstruction of a [now] three-million dollar home in Santa Barbara, or for some South Carolina surfer dude's home so he and his wife can surf. But more to the point of this post, many have properly asked, "why should taxpayers pay to rebuild vulnerable structures and neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy?" Why, indeed? 

One of the simplest, cheapest, and most sensible adaptation measures to prepare for climate change is to recognize the increasing danger and cost of storms, and to relocate infrastructure and structures away from harm's way. What stands in the way? The stubborn determination of people to not let Mother Nature defeat them.... with the assistance of the US taxpayer, of course.

Because of the politics of disaster relief, a date certain should be set after which no FEMA money  and no federal monetary assistance of any kind should be provided to victims of natural disasters. Setting a date certain will defuse the accusation that relief will be withheld for political reasons.

Without FEMA funding, we'll see who really is resolved to stay put in harm's way. Without FEMA funding, it will be up to states to determine whether they will assist those harmed by natural disasters. And states, already tight for money, will have to choose. In a way, getting rid of FEMA is a way of bringing markets to bear on climate adaptation. If FEMA funding for natural disasters goes, then we will see the value of barrier island homes plummet. And that South Carolina surfer dude will really be bummin.'


  1. I completely agree with you. Interestingly enough, the New York Times recently published an article about the Netherlands doing much of what you're suggesting here. (

  2. I think it's good to have disaster relief to save lives.

    DIsaster relief to rebuild similar structures in the same area, probably not.