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20. Developers Build on Flood Plains at Taxpayers’ Expense

Source: MOTHER JONES, Title: “Rain Check,” Date: March/April 1998, Vol. 23, issue 2, Author: Marc Herman

SSU Censored Researcher: Brooke Herron
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Bryan Baker

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), some 10 million people in the U.S. currently live on flood plains. Of these households at risk of flooding, only one-fourth actually carries insurance; the rest will rely on federal disaster relief funds if their homes are flooded. Many of these people face repeated flooding, and the American taxpayer is paying the tab.

Flood plains are nice flat places to build homes and businesses. Developers get a sweet deal from the government at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. As long as there is proof of economic benefit for developing in flood plains, developers can obtain: (1) a government-built levee to protect their investment, (2) the government’s near total subsidy of repairs should flood damage occur, and (3) the right to offer property buyers guaranteed, federally underwritten flood insur-ance policies through the National Flood Insurance Program.

The government’s levee-building program, started 100 years ago, was based on the logic of financial viability. Lowlands along rivers were desirably productive areas sought for agricultural purposes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would build the levees to protect the land for agricultural use. In recent times, as cities and towns expanded into traditional farming areas, the extension of levee building and maintenance for suburban developments has increased. Damages from a suburban flood can have a significantly higher loss value than flooding of farm land.

Herman writes that the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors are two leaders paying lobbyists to actively campaign for continuation of the levee subsidies. Both are big contributors to congressional candidates who support continued levee building and maintenance.

In the Mississippi floods of 1993, taxpayers paid between $12 and $16 billion to cover damages. The Federal Emer-gency Management Agency created a buyout plan to relocate families living within the boundaries of flood plains. A lot of press attention was given to the relocation of some 900 people who lived in Valmeyer, Illinois, as they moved the entire town to nearby limestone bluffs. The much publicized move was designed to show the public that Congress was doing something in the wake of the 1993 Mississippi floods. The program, however, has only succeeded in relocating 12,000 people, leaving millions still in harm’s way.

“Those who extract the most profit from building on the flood plain, experience none of the risk,” says Jeffrey Mount, a professor of geology at the University of California, Davis. Mount points out that areas such as Arboga, a town in nearby Yuba County, are being newly zoned for subdivisions on the very same land inundated by floods in 1997. Currently some 58,000 structures are being planned by developers in California Central Valley flood plains. “As long as you can build a house, sell it, and walk away, you will,” said Mount.

The Clinton Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality opposed the rebuilding of levees following the 1993 floods. Then came the 1994 elections: The Democrats were swept from congressional control and the proposed changes have been lost amid bipartisan bickering.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR MAW HERMAN: “In 1998 the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program wrote an additional $60 billion in policies, and now covers $482.5 billion worth of homes, businesses, and property located in severely flood-prone areas. At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported $268 million in damages from floods in 1998, which it called a relatively light year following $687 million in damages in 1997, and $1.1 billion in 1996.

“Meanwhile, flood risks have not changed in the past year, and the failure of policies to address these largely avoidable tragedies has gotten little attention. It is still the case that flood-control levees are maintained by the government if there is an economic incentive to do so, with little thought to the area’s history of flood damage. Free repair of those multi-million dollar levees, subsidized flood insurance for people who private insurers won’t touch, and the safety net of disaster relief are still considered a dubious sort of protection, but in practice have acted as incentives to stay in flood zones, keeping; people in harm’s way. And levees continue to fail.

“The year since publication of ‘Rain Check’ has, fortunately, been a lucky one. Though there was $268 million in flood damage, there was no Grand Forks Flood, Yosemite Flood, Great Mississippi Flood, Texas Flood, Arkansas Flood, or Louisiana Flood, to name just a few disasters of the past decade. On the other hand, when floods aren’t on the front. page, neither is flood policy; it’s hard to write about causes without a show of the effects.

“If flood policy was absent from national newspapers, though, it was not only because of Mother Nature’s momentary mercy, but also because some of those involved with the issue have simply given up on the press.

“‘I’ve stopped feeding stories to the newspapers,’ said one lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous. ‘Honestly, I really don’t need you. I can get things done without it [press coverage],’ he said.”

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