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Flirting with disaster.

It would have been understandable if television viewers thought CNN had started running reruns. In 1993, its cameras had vividly captured the extensive flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, where homes were destroyed and crops ruined. Because only 17 percent of the property damaged had been insured, it had cost the federal government $6 billion in emergency relief aid. Two years later, when high waters returned, three fourths of the properties in the most dangerous areas had no flood insurance; again, the feds (followed by, TV crews) came back to help repair and rebuild. Even now, after all these warnings, still only 30 percent of homeowners have adequate flood insurance. The number is even lower in the areas where Hurricane Fran struck.

Welcome to the world of federal disaster relief, a political ritual with a protocol all its own:

1) Following disaster (televised live), president expresses nations sympathy, pledges to do everything possible, sends Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to scene, and declares national disaster, authorizing emergency grants and low-interest loans.

2) Media airs dramatic interviews with victims, who praise FEMA's performance.

3) President and/or cabinet officials make on-site inspection. More aid is promised.

4) Asserting that this transcends politics," Congress passes "emergency" appropriations overwhelmingly.

5) Community congratulates itself for coming together and thanks rest of country for its support; every elected official gets a positive bump in the polls.

6) Repeat when necessary.

This procedure is so ingrained that Americans rarely think about its broader long-term implications. Natural disasters often merit round-the-clock television coverage, and moviegoers made Twister one of the top blockbuster hits of the summer. Yet if taxpayers did look beyond the pictures they might be distressed by how much money is spent, the disproportionate benefit going to politically important states, md the personal irresponsibility of many of the recipients.

Other than successfully commanding a war, there is no better way for a politician to look "presidential" than by taking charge after a natural disaster. In February, President Clinton made special visits to key swing states Pennsylvania and Washington to inspect relief efforts after he declared them federal disaster areas. Of course, it would have been impolitic to mention that only I percent of businesses and homes in those states had purchased proper flood insurance.

The most blatant use of federal disaster relief as a political tool was President Bush's promise of a half billion dollars during the 1992 campaign to rebuild Florida's Homestead Air Force Base, destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. The Pentagon had already decided it did not need the base and scheduled Homestead for closing. But Bush, previously pilloried for his slow reaction to Andrew, wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. (Not surprisingly, the two states that have received the great bulk of relief aid are also electorally rich. California, which has 54 electoral votes, received 55 percent of federal aid from 1989 to 1994. Florida, with 25 electoral votes, got 20 percent)

The problems here are obvious. First, a few billion for this earthquake, a few billion for that hurricane, and soon you're talking about real money. Contrary to popular belief, disaster aid does not come out of some bottomless "rainy day" fund; at more than $50 billion over the last five years, it has become an increasingly costly piece of the federal budget. In fact, it is one of the few government activities where politicians, the public, and the press all agree that the standard of success is how much and how fast money can be spent. Not only is disaster relief untouchable, it's a unique example of political pork that everyone accepts as kosher.

The second problem is that political pressures can lead to relief measures that are unnecessary, or even counterproductive. Last August, as firefighters fought devastating wildfires over thousands of acres in New York's Long Island, Governor George Pataki and Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato held a press conference announcing that the U.S. Forest Service would be sending C-130 aerial tankers capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

When the planes did not show up immediately, the politicians went back on television to criticize the federal response. Area Congressman Michael P. Forbes sent a letter to President Clinton demanding an investigation into what he called the "C-130 fiasco," and the White House instructed federal officials on the scene to respond to local demands. USA Today even weighed in, asking why the planes did not appear in an editorial titled "Jumbo Disappointment,

Missing from the furor was one important fact: Firefighters on the ground neither needed nor wanted the C-130s which they thought would be more difficult to maneuver than the planes and helicopters already on the scene - and therefore potentially dangerous. According to the local Southhampton Press, the misguided pressure forced the U.S. Forest Service to "spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring airplanes that only the press and the politicians and the misled public cared to see." An internal Agriculture Department review of the C-130 controversy buttressed this point of view, concluding that "well-intentioned but inexpert involvement in ordering resources ... hampered the fire team and local authorities in using aircraft on the fire safely" Predictably, the report received scant coverage from the same local news operations that had helped whip up the frenzy with their live remotes.

Too-Sweet Relief

The third problem - and the issue that deserves the most attention - is this dirty secret: Some of these emergencies are not unexpected. Americans who have made conscious decisions to live underinsured in potentially treacherous (but often scenic) areas do so with some knowledge that the government will bail them out in case of disaster. Some calamities are unpredictable. Most are not. Anyone moving to Malibu, California, for example, has to know that there's a high risk of trouble. Floods, fires, and mudslides in that city have resulted in five national disaster declarations and a $445 million federal emergency relief tab in the last five years.

Although "personal responsibility" has been a frequent mantra in the current welfare and tort reform debates, few have noticed the lack of personal responsibility of property holders who do not insure their risk and then repeatedly ask taxpayers to pay.

True, in many highrisk areas insurance can be very expense and hard to get. In California, for instance, nine of the top ten homeowners insurance carriers left the market after the state required them to offer earthquake insurance with all homeowner policies following the Northridge quake in 1993. Realtors report that it has become much more difficult (though certainly still possible) to get homeowners insurance. And in Florida, where Hurricane Andrew caused $16 billion in insured losses, insurance companies are dropping homeowners and refusing to take new ones. Prudential even paid their customers to take their business elsewhere, and Allstate paid a competitor to take 137,000 policies.

But people are still more than willing to stay in and move to these high-risk areas, even without insurance to protect their homes. Experts believe there is a good chance (some say as high as M percent) of an earthquake measuring up to 7.0 on the Richter scale occurring in Southern California in the next 30 years; yet only 35 percent of residents in seismically active areas carry earthquake insurance. (The 6.8 Northridge earthquake 1993 cost taxpayers $15 billion in relief for homeowners, businesses, and local governments) Meanwhile, across the country, 1995 was the Southeast's busiest weather season in 1995 years, with 17 major named storms: Meteorologists believe these conditions foreshadow increased hurricane activity over the next two decades. That makes it all the more urgent that we move beyond a reactive mode when it comes to disaster policy.

FEMA has begun the effort. Over the last several years, the agency has worked with Congress to improve disaster planning and tighten relief eligibility requirements. For example, under a new federal law, financial institutions cannot issue a mortgage without proper flood insurance coverage. But more than two thirds of private buildings in the flood-prone zones still do not have coverage. One problem is that these policies are sold in one-year increments, and many consumers let them lapse.

Another step in the right direction is that FEMA will now provide flood relief to victims without proper insurance only once; the second time they're on their own. The agency has even launched a television advertising campaign to get that message out and increase the anemically low number of flood insurance policyholders.

This is a good start. But why not just announce that if homeowners do not purchase flood insurance by a certain date, they will be ineligible for significant federal relief? In California, slightly more than one in three insured homeowners have taken the earthquake insurance they are entitled to by state law, but realistically, earthquakes have to be considered a part of life in the Golden State. As a California Insurance Department official concedes, "There are costs attached to living in paradise."

Both California and Florida have been attempting to address the insurance problem themselves. After Hurricane Andrew, Florida created its own insurance pool to provide coverage to homeowners dropped by private insurers, and it has become the third largest underwriter in the state. California, where practically every insurer has cut back on issuing new policies or left the business entirely, is establishing a state Earthquake Authority, financed by the insurance industry and state bond sales, that would become a less costly lending option for homeowners in perilous areas.

Yet, the ultimate success of these initiatives will rely on several elements, including some cooperation from Mother Nature. State officials say that the new systems could probably handle smaller disasters of up to $10 billion in damages, but concede that they could not deal with the expected $25-50 billion In losses if a hurricane or earthquake hit a major metropolitan area without having to turn to the federal government for extensive financial assistance.

The Clinton administration is currently meeting with members of Congress, the insurance industry, and consumer groups to try to provide some protection for insurers in the case of such a megadisaster without leaving the federal government exposed to an open-ended financial risk. In the meantime, local governments need to move toward more rigorous predisaster preparation, by adopting and enforcing stronger building codes and zoning restrictions, in order to mitigate the extent of losses. It should be more than a little alarming, for example, that many of the nation's most dangerous areas are also some of its fastest growing. Florida's population of 14 million, 75 percent of which lives on a coastline, has risen by more than 25 percent in the last decade. If localities won't act on their own, then the feds should force them to, because it's Uncle Sam who will ultimately be socked with the reconstruction costs of both uninsured private and public property.

The unique challenge in bringing together all parties to find a legislative answer to the disaster policy quandary is that dramatic videotape can throw the best@laid plans to the winds. Airborne shots of floating houses beget national sympathy, which begets, federal officials with hip boots and deep pockets.

So dealing properly with this issue requires as much a societal attitude adjustment as a legislative change. The public needs to realize that policy should not be driven solely by dramatic pictures. It's true that young people, who have little choice over where they live, deserve public help. But adult residents make conscious decisions to@live with risk, and the response must take that factor into consideration.

Although policymakers need to get smart about disaster relief, its hard to overestimate the role of journalists in these matters. With their stories of heartbreaking devastation and heroic rescue efforts, they create conditions that lead to personal and political irresponsibility. Next time it does round-the-clock disaster coverage, the media should interrupt long enough to explain the essential context, the cost to taxpayers, and the real stories about many of the victims.

It is a proper role of government to provide an emergency safety net. But ongoing disaster aid is not a right. Like any other government function, sympathy requires realistic planning, strict standards, and a responsible budget.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:disaster relief reform
Author:Solomon, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:2032
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