Sunday, May 26, 2013

That's a Real Beach of an Investment for Public Dollars

Remember this?
Why are we pouring tax money into re-building this?
As a species, and generally as a nation, we want what we want when we want it. 

Consequences be damned.

And so as another summer vacation season kicks off tomorrow and Chris Christie works overtime to convince we Philadelphia-area residents that the Jersey shore is open for  summer business, we continue to ignore the elephant in the room.

It would seem that we have learned little from Super-storm Sandy.

Sure, newspapers dutifully reported the folly of building on barrier islands as sea levels rise and budgets diminish.

Recalling them described as "high-speed real estate," this self-same blog joined the chorus of caution.

But despite the warnings, despite the science, despite the vague and empty promises of government officials who promised to "study" the issue, we tumble headlong once again into doing the same thing over and over -- providing for huge populations and public/private investment on unstable real estate -- and expecting a different result.

Let's face it, we like the beach.

And if the beach is popular with the public, using public money to fix it back up again so global warming can knock it back down again, is going to keep getting money from officials elected by that public.

After all, what is an election but a popularity contest?

But because the beleaguered staff here at the Digital Notebook's vast underground bunker revels in being an unheralded voice in the wilderness,
Oh yeah, re-building here makes PERFECT sense.
(and a summer season killjoy to boot) we'll take another swing using the latest developments since Sandy to suggest, however briefly, that "maybe we should try something different...."

In November, scientists writing in The New York Times issued the following warning:
As scientists who study sea level change and storm surge, we fear that Hurricane Sandy gave only a modest preview of the dangers to come, as we continue to power our global economy by burning fuels that pollute the air with heat-trapping gases.
This past summer, a disconcerting new scientific study by the climate scientist Michiel Schaeffer and colleagues — published in the journal Nature Climate Change — suggested that no matter how quickly we cut this pollution, we are unlikely to keep the seas from climbing less than five feet.
More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.
Floods reaching five feet above the current high tide line will become increasingly common along the nation’s coastlines well before the seas climb by five feet. Over the last century, the nearly eight-inch rise of the world’s seas has already doubled the chance of “once in a century” floods for many seaside communities.

What to do?

I mean, what are the chances it could happen again right?
Actually, they're pretty good.
Well, actually, we did it, back in 1982 with a law liberals and conservatives agreed upon and Ronald Reagan
signed with a flourish.

"The law — the Coastal Barrier Resources Act — was intended to protect much of the American coastline, and it did so in a clever way that drew votes from the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats," The New York Times reported in April.

"The $75 billion in damages from Hurricane Sandy, coming only seven years after the $80 billion from Hurricane Katrina, told us this much: We need a plan.

"The climate is changing, the ocean is rising, more storms are coming, and millions of Americans are in harm’s way. The costs of making people whole after these storms are soaring," wrote Justin Gillis.

Gillis puts it better than I could hope to:
It should be obvious that the more people we move out of harm’s way in the reasonably near future, the better off we will ultimately be.
But we are doing the opposite, offering huge subsidies for coastal development. We proffer federally backed flood insurance at rates bearing no resemblance to the risks. Even more important, we go in after storms and write big checks so towns can put the roads, sewers and beach sand right back where they were.
We are, in other words, using the federal Treasury to shield people from the true risks that they are taking by building on the coasts. Coastal development has soared as a direct consequence, and this rush toward the sea is the biggest factor in the rising costs of storm bailouts.
Turns out one way to keep people from building on storm-prone
shorelines is to refuse to provide them with
federal flood insurance. Simple.
So what was so clever about that 1982 law, and how can we learn from it?
"The bill simply declared that on sensitive coastlines that were then undeveloped, any future development would have to occur without federal subsidies.

"In other words, no flood insurance and no fat checks after storms.

"The law did not prohibit anybody from building anything. And in fact, some development has occurred on lands in the redlined zone. But the law has mostly held, discouraging development along some 1.3 million acres of American coastline," Gillis wrote.

That sounds very American. Very independent. After all, we wouldn't want to be like those people who rely on "public assistance" would we? Oh the shame of it all. There are no Welfare Queens at the beach right?

Gillis suggests that we begin to "expand" those zones into the riskiest areas, the places that we keep pouring public money to re-build only to see it washed away with the latest truckload of sand?

Fat chance.

As ProPublica reported in March, the Federal Small Business Administration is approving loans for businesses that want to rebuild just as they were in areas that are just as flood-prone as they were before Sandy; in fact probably more so.
A WNYC and ProPublica analysis of federal data shows at least 10,500 home and business owners have been approved for $766 million in SBA disaster loans to rebuild in (the New York City metro) areas that the government now says could flood again in the next big storm.
The data, which shows loans approved through mid-February, was obtained via a Freedom of
Information Act request.
More loans could be going to flood-prone areas. The analysis did not cover Long Island or Connecticut.
The loans require borrowers to get flood insurance, which in turn could encourage some to rebuild properties to be more flood-resistant. However, for many owners there’s no requirement they raise their properties to the heights FEMA recommends.
The result: the federal government is helping people rebuild despite the risk that flooding will again destroy the properties.
The SBA says it’s not their job to assess whether it’s smart to build in flood-prone areas.
Don't you just love that "not-my-job-to-exercise-common-sense" mindset? It is not unique to government workers, but when it is exercised by government workers, it is usually we the people who pay the price.

Speaking of which, we're also paying to rebuild yacht clubs.

The biggest loan approved (in the New York Metro area) as of mid-February was a $1.5 million loan to the Fairfield Beach Club, a private beach and tennis club on the shore of the Long Island Sound in Connecticut.
The Fairfield Beach Club is getting the a $1.5 million
loan from SBA.


At least, argues Michele Byers in the May 21 edition of, if we're going to pay to put these beaches back in place, we the public should have improved access to those beaches.

"It's time to make sure the taxpayers who foot the bill for beach improvements have access to those expensive strips of sand they're saving," she wrote.

Byers further reports:
"Public access must be a required part of all projects, before they can be considered for funding," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group.
Dillingham added that federal guidelines for funding contain similar language to ensure that projects are public in nature, and not private.
The beaches, ocean, and tidal waterways belong to everyone. New Jersey should not miss this opportunity to make sure that all residents have meaningful access to the investments made with their tax dollars, and to catalyze the Shore's economic recovery.
So the public should have access to the Fairfield Beach Club right?

Yeah, good luck with that.

And good luck with tying public funding to good decisions about where houses and businesses should be re-built.

"Environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation say the best flood protection are wetlands and to leave stretches of the coast undeveloped," wrote Robert Lewis and Al Shaw for ProPublica.

“Ideally we’re going to help people move away from the flood zone and not give them assistance to rebuild exactly as is,” said Joshua Saks, the federation’s legislative director. “But we recognize it’s a very personal decision, it’s a local decision.”

Umm, local decision? It's federal money. Your money. My money. Our money. 

Why is it that the government is inevitably the one entity you can count on to take on a risk that no commercial bank or insurance company would entertain for a New York minute?

Hell, they even admit it!

“It’s good government. I mean, basically it’s what the private sector won’t do,” James Rivera, associate administrator in the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance, told the reporters.
The Small Business Administration provides as much as $200,000 for damaged homes and $2 million for businesses. In rare cases, homeowners might qualify to have a portion of their mortgage refinanced with an SBA loan.
The loans carry low interest rates – as little as 1.7 percent for home loans and as low as 4 percent for business loans -- and can be repaid over 30 years.
13 houses at $200,000 could mean $2.6 million in loans.
As of mid-February, the SBA approved more than 21,500 disaster loans worth $1.5 billion for Sandy-related damage, according to a copy of the loan database WNYC and ProPublica obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The SBA estimates it could ultimately approve as much as $2.5 billion worth of Sandy-related disaster loans.
There is no data yet on how many property owners who received a loan will actually rebuild and, of those, how many will raise their properties to withstand a future flood.
Of the loans made in New York City, 83 percent went to a property in areas FEMA says are at risk of flooding, the data shows. In New Jersey 71 percent went to a proposed flood zone.
So that's a $2.5 billion investment in locations which, the best science now tells us, are likely to be hit with storms as bad or worse than Sandy within the next 15 years.

And that's "good government?"

I think this is one of those times we'd prefer to see government run more like a business, a business not likely to throw money into the ocean.

But wait, it gets better.

Ask yourself this: How would we even know which places we should avoid when investing that public money?

Why accurate flood maps of course; maps that show where rising sea level is going to wash away the property in which we're so foolishly investing.

At least we're doing that right right?


Mmmmm, again, not so much.

Once more, ProPublica rains on our summer parade:
At the same time the SBA was approving disaster loans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was releasing new “advisory” flood zone maps.
See if you can guess where FEMA maps show
New Jersey flooding in the future?
Hint: It's greenish in color.
Approved maps ultimately determine flood insurance rates and help builders decide how high to make their properties. The existing maps that govern building along the coast are from 1983.
The new preliminary maps show FEMA thinks far more properties throughout the region are at risk of flooding. FEMA also says many of those properties already in flood zones should be raised even higher to avoid future damage.
FEMA rushed to release the maps to ensure property owners had the data as they start to rebuild, said Michael Byrne, FEMA’s coordinating officer for New York operations.
“It’s the best science we’ve got. We certainly hope people will take it seriously,” Byrne said.
But the maps won’t become final for as long as three years. And it’s up to local governments to decide if they want to require higher elevations before then.
Would those be the same local governments elected by the people who built houses along the beach in the first place?


But not to worry, these are loans, so at least the government makes money back on that investment like a bank ... right?

Kind of.

ProPublica reports:
The default rate on disaster home loans is about 10 percent, and it’s about 20 percent for some business loans, according to the SBA. The administration estimates that it costs taxpayers 11 cents for every $1 of disaster loans.
“These loans do not come without risk to taxpayers,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president for the National Taxpayers Union. “We need to have a policy that carefully considers whether rebuilding in flood prone areas makes sense and whether such building ought to be encouraged by government or at least abetted by government through the use of aid and loans.”
Not to worry, the federal government is on the job, feverishly issuing new, more accurate maps so that "carefully considered policy Mr. Sepp mentions can be based on hard facts.


Did I say the federal government?

Uh oh.

As ProPublica reported Friday, maybe not so much:
Underfunding by Congress and President Obama will delay
the completion of the new, more accurate flood maps.
The maps, drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, dictate the monthly premiums millions of American households pay for flood insurance. They are also designed to give homeowners and buyers the latest understanding of how likely their communities are to flood.

The government’s response to the rising need for accurate maps? It’s slashed funding for them. (Emphasis mine.)

Congress has cut funding for updating flood maps by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year. And the president’s latest budget request would slash funding for mapping even further to $84 million — a drop of 62 percent over the last four years.
In a little-noticed written response to questions from a congressional hearing, FEMA estimated the cuts would delay its map program by three to five years. The program “will continue to make progress, but more homeowners will rely on flood hazard maps that are not current,” FEMA wrote.
The cuts have slowed efforts to update flood maps across the country.
Although today’s mapmakers can take advantage of technologies including lidar, or laser radar, and ADCIRC, a computer program that’s used to model hurricane storm surge; and although they can also incorporate more years of flooding data into their models, it may be years before we, the taxpayers who pay for them, can benefit.


Yet somehow we can afford to rebuild the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

And now, to complete the circle... again, ProPublica:
FEMA also funds its maps through the National Flood Insurance Program. It takes a small slice of homeowners’ flood insurance premiums, about $150 million in the 2013 fiscal year. But the flood insurance program is also in trouble, and income from the premiums is already stretched thin. The program has more than $20 billion in debt after paying out massive claims after Katrina and Sandy, and it took in only $3.6 billion in premiums last year.
Hope we're all ready for this....
As part of an overhaul to the insurance program last year, Congress authorized the government to spend $400 million a year for the next five years to update flood maps. But for the 2013 fiscal year, Congress has appropriated just a quarter of that. Sequestration has cut another $5 million, according to the Office of Management and Budget, leaving $95 million for flood mapping this year.
As one Toms River, N.J. told ProPublica reporter Theodoric Meyer, “There’s going to be another hurricane somewhere, there’s going to be another disaster,” he said. “If you’re cutting the flood mapping program, somebody’s going to get screwed.”

Yeah, and it's us taxpayers.

And if you've suffered all the way to the end of this long blog post; and you're thinking you could have read those last three sentences and learned everything you need to know about how we're responding to the very real and expensive threats the rise in sea level is washing in to us -- you'd be right.

And if you thought that response could be summed up in one word -- "stupidity" -- you'd be right too.

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