Current Events

What Could Be Wrong with Protecting Families from Floods?

So, your house burns down. Mercifully, nobody was home. Only things were lost; no people.

You begin to pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild. You call your insurance company. Everything starts out fine, until they tell you that new FEMA regulations enacted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina affect the requirements for the rebuilding of your home.

Specifically, if you want to rebuild, you’ve got to raise your home to the base flood elevation.

Which, for you, means 20 feet in the air.

Of course, none of the other 35,000 homes in the area stand on stilts. After all, it’s a rather onerous requirement, isn’t it? Best not to inflict it on everyone. Just the people who’ve recently lost their home and all their tangible possessions to natural disaster.

Nancy Ward, Regional Administrator at FEMA, feels bad for you. Really, she does. But she doesn’t have the authority to override the city of Sacramento’s land use decisions.

Ryan DeVore, Chief Building Official in Sacramento would like to provide a variance. Really, he would. But in order to participate in the national flood insurance program and receive aid in the event of a flood, he needs to abide by FEMA’s rules.

Ouch, that’s a bit of a bind, isn’t it? Seems like somebody ought to write a book about that kind of thing.

Don’t worry, says Nancy. Maybe Congress will give the Army Corps of Engineers enough money to fix the levees.

In the meantime, she offers the following wise words of reassurance:

“It doesn’t always work out the way we intended; but we never stop trying.”

Read more and keep up with the story at the Taylors’ Facebook page: Burned OUT in Natomas.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • ThaomasH

    Can anyone make a case for subsidizing the construction of homes that are especially subject to flood? Maybe this should be done with differential insurance rates depending ont the area rather than local zooning, but the principle of discouraging reconstruction in the same place seems right.

    • Sean II

      Yes, but it’s the arbitrary, selective, and coercive nature of the “discouraging” which raises objections around here.

      I, for example, don’t like public schools. But I don’t propose to abolish them by arbitrarily picking one child out of millions and telling him he can’t take part in a system that is otherwise massively encouraged, subsidized, and guaranteed a captive audience by truancy laws, and which by that virtue controls +90% of the education market.

      After so many years of encouraging flood plain development, it seems terribly unjust to start changing the rules, one befuddled and bankrupt household at a time.

      Of course the larger point of this piece is much more interesting, since it concerns the futility and injustice of public rule-making in the general case.

      I can only too easily imagine my pre-libertarian self attending a meeting and talking about how “we” are going to solve this whole floodplain development problem by creating different zones with different rules. In Zone X you can do whatever, but in Zone AH you must always do such and such, and in Zone AE you must do exactly this and not that, or whatever we say. (You know, FEMA just loves table-top models and intricate graphics, and I can almost picture the explanatory training session with a Powerpoint full of lovely little diagrams, as I write this.)

      The kind of thing used to sound perfectly sensible for me. A bunch of smart people in a room making rules for little Walmart shoppers to follow…what’s not to like? And who cares if we forget to drop in the phrase “the foregoing will of course cease to apply in cases where the damage was caused by some non-flood event such as a fire, tornado, etc”? We can’t think of everything, and we can’t worry about everybody! This is the common good we’re talking about here. We cannot set it aside for the sake of a couple actual commoners. Are you kidding?

      I used to think like that. Most people still do. Now I shudder to remember that I was ever so careless and stupid.

      • I shudder to think that whole armies of people with power and influence are that stupid.

      • Devon Sanchez

        I dream of those people in a situation that literally scares the living sh!t out of them (aka disembowels them). Kind of a totalitarian purgatory.

        • Sean II

          This is why I like movies better than real life. On screen, the guys who sell out other people or crush their dreams always suffer some nice bit of poetic justice. Think of Burke in Aliens, half-swallowed by a cocoon with a hand grenade as the only mercy left to him. There’s no mistaking the lesson in that.

          Which reminds me of my own depraved anti-statist revenge fantasy. It goes like this:

          I’m wearing black pajamas with a red checkered scarf, and holding an AK 47. Driven before me are Peter Orszag, Donald Berwick, David Brooks, Brian Leiter, Bill Kristol, that girl from Girls, Sean Penn, that guy from Southern Poverty Law Center who always accuses everyone of being in a hate group, Naomi Klein, Dr. Paul Krugman (of course), Michael Moore, and all the statist trolls who live in eternal residence over at Volokh Conspiracy (thereby rendering the comment space uninhabitable to people like us – if they ever find this website, we’re really screwed.).

          Anyway, they’re all wailing pathetically: “This must be a mistake. I don’t know anything about rice cultivation. Don’t we have farmers for that sort of thing? Just where are you taking us? I demand to know the meaning of this!”

      • ThaomasH

        Maybe I missed something about the facts of this case, but a rule about construction in flood-prone areas seems quite general and not at all arbitrary.
        And I’m not sure what the general point about rule-making is.  If a promise not to assist people who are flood victims is not credible (I accept that is is not credible becasue we do not govern ourselves by pure libertarian principles), what is the best way to minimize the cost (or rather what is the best balance between reducing that cost) and the implicit promise of future assistance?  If an area is prone to flooding of different kinds an degrees, what alternative is there to having different kinds of restrictions in different kinds of areas?  Even if a requirement to have insurance were possible, a competitive private insurance company would have different rates for different areas.

        • The most obvious form of arbitrariness lies in the fact that the government seems to think that the risks of flooding are serious enough to require the Taylor’s home to be (re)built on stilts, but not serious enough to require the other 35,000 homeowners in the area to do anything.

          • ThaomasH

            Is there, there no non-arbitrary way to prevent people from running the risks that we are unwilling to allow them to suffer the full consequences of?  If so, then we have to chose from the least bad of the arbitrary ways.  It’s not clear that there is a better way than the kind of regulation under question.

          • good_in_theory

            I don’t see why distinguishing between new construction and already built homes is arbitrary.

    • It’s really a problem of regulation begetting regulation, isn’t it? Of course I don’t think there’s a good case to be made for subsidizing people to build homes in floodplains. But I don’t think there’s a good case to be made for preventing people from building in local floodplains either, so long as they themselves bear the cost of the risk. But once government starts taking that risk upon itself, it doesn’t take long for pressure to build for it to use its regulatory powers to ensure that people are taking only what it deems to be “acceptable” risks. It’s a pattern we see over and over again, to which this story adds (as Sean notes) a measure of arbitrariness and absurdity that only heighten the sense of injustice.

      • ThaomasH

        It is an example of a conflict between a desire to help people who suffer misfortune with the need to discourage people from doing things that make them more likely to suffer misfortune.  Since a “promise” not to help in the future is not credible, a prohibition on flood-prone construction in flood-prone areas does not look like a bad compromise.  Possibly such construction should be allowed if the person maintained an adequate flood insurance, but that would have its costs as well.

    • Devon Sanchez

      No one can make the case for publicly subsidizing the construction of homes in areas prone to flooding (or the public subsidization of any construction) without infringing upon someone else’s personal (read: human) rights.

      Private insurance policies are a matter of the contract between the insurer and the insured. The benefits and risks are built into that contract.

  • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

    Note to self: check home insurance contract for what happens when a home cannot be rebuilt in place…

    • Devon Sanchez

      Note to you: Cross-examine all coinciding state and federal legislation, old and new, with your home insurance paperwork.

      On second thought, reading all those pages of bullshit is just that, bullshit. F#ck the government.

  • Aeon Skoble
  • DavidCheatham

    Erm, wait. Why isn’t the *insurance company* the one on the hook for the additional cost? What sort of stupid logic is that?

  • Jay_Z

    This post and this video are complaining that a re-build is making different requirements than existing properties. Don’t really see the cause for complaint, except that the government is requiring something, so in libertarian land it must be unjust.

    How is this different than what the private sector would do? If the house is in a flood plain, you get your money for the fire, but the insurance company and the banks tell you they won’t insure you and they won’t loan you money to build your house at that spot in that way. Now maybe that house was viable at some point and the weather patterns changed or the geography changed. That happens. Sometimes areas that were low cost turn into high cost, sometimes the numbers don’t work any more. But again, are the banks and the insurance companies going to sing a different tune here?

    Furthermore, in the instances of disasters it is better to make an all or nothing decision about viability of particular towns or neighborhoods. A market-based approach would usually result in rapid devaluation and unnecessary capital destruction.

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  • CruisingTroll

    The theory behind this is the same as requiring that when a home built in 1907 burns down, the replacement must meet the electrical and fire codes of 2013, not 1907. This is simply a more extreme example.
    Just goes to show that reality will always manage to find a way of worming through the bureaucratic cracks. Building in a flood plain is a bad idea.