Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Just as we Floridians begin to worry about the approach of another hurricane season, overflowing rivers in and around Iowa remind us that far more people are harmed by interior fresh water than by salt water. Both types of flooding raise the land use law question of whether government policies should try to discourage construction in risky areas –- the floodplains in Iowa and the coast in Florida -- and what form this discouragement should take. Ironically, risk aversion methods must take account of the policies of government-assisted flood insurance and disaster relief, which work to encourage residence (or at least dull the effect of discouragement policies) in flood-prone areas. How can law both protect people who are hit by disasters and at the same time encourage them to live so as to avoid risk?
Proposed solutions such as the complete removal of government-sponsored insurance are simply too glib; such an effort would most often harm the poor, and wouldn’t solve the problem of what to do about people who have relied on assurances that they would receive some protection from the government. And then there’s the problem of rapidly changing assessments of risk. Hurricanes in the South have increased in intensity in recent years, and once-in-a-century floods have now occurred twice in 25 years in the upper Mississippi basin.
One town that is getting a lot attention is little Chelsea, Iowa, which was seriously flooded in 1993, after which there were calls to move the entire town. Eventually, some but not most residents took government assistance to move to higher ground. Some who stayed behind are now regretting it, and it would seem easy to criticize those who didn’t act to anticipate another flood. But such a reaction would be too facile. Many Chelsea residents are coping with the flood, pumping out their basements, helping neighbors, and surviving with minimal government assistance, as this story explains.
If we truly are entering an age of heightened threats from floods, there are no silver-bullet land use law solutions to adaptation …