David Frum

11.19.12

How About a Little Flood Insurance Reform?

Our friend and sometime contributor Eli Lehrer (of the R Street think tank) has been warning for years against the recklessness of friendly subsidies to building on storm-threatened beachfronts.

Today the New York Times takes up his issue.

A coalition in Washington called SmarterSafer.org, made up of environmentalists, libertarians and budget watchdogs, contends that the subsidies have essentially become a destructive, unaffordable entitlement.

“We simply can’t go on subsidizing enormous numbers of people to live in areas that are prone to huge natural disasters,” said Eli Lehrer, the president of the conservative R Street Institute, part of the coalition.

This argument might be gaining some traction. Earlier this year, Congress passed changes to the federal flood insurance program that are supposed to raise historically low premiums and reduce homeowner incentives for rebuilding in the most hazardous areas.

Less widely known about than flood insurance are the subsidies from the Stafford Act, the federal law governing the response to emergencies like hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes. It kicks in when the president declares a federal disaster that exceeds the response capacity of state and local governments.

Experts say the law is at least as important as the flood program in motivating reconstruction after storms. In the same way flood insurance shields families from the financial consequences of rebuilding in risky areas, the Stafford Act shields local and state governments from the full implications of their decisions on land use.

Under the law, the federal government committed more than $80 billion to disaster recovery from 2004 to 2011, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. While billions of dollars went to relieve immediate suffering, including cash payments to families left homeless by storms, nearly half of the money was spent helping state and local governments clean and restore damaged areas and rebuild infrastructure.