Tuesday, September 16, 2008
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Many beachfront communities along the Gulf of Mexico have in the past few years experienced hurricane devastation that is all-too predictable, based on the history of colossal storms hitting the area. In 1900, a massive hurricane caused an estimated 6000 deaths in Galveston (then the biggest city in Texas) –- arguably the worst natural disaster in American history. As a result, much of development in south Texas moved inland to the city of Houston. But the allure of the coast remained strong in a recreational age, and life in coastal Galveston was once again devastated last week. Only better advance warning avoided a large loss of life.
Should government use its powers of land use law to prevent people from living on vulnerable coasts? As elsewhere, authorities in Texas are debating whether to discourage rebuilding along the barrier islands of southeast Texas. Advocates of restrictive construction policies argue that even buying up land use rights now might prove, in the long run, to be cheaper than paying for reconstruction and relief in the future. So why does government so rarely do this? One reason is that it is easier to get government and taxpayers to accept payments to people who have been hit by hurricane damage, than it is to pay people to avoid by being hit by such damage in the future, especially when the date of the next decimating hurricane is so uncertain. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of human nature and human politics. And it ensures that billions of taxpayer dollars will flow toward rebuilding along the Gulf –- perhaps not until 2108, perhaps as soon as next year ….