How Should Governments Manage Development In Disaster-Prone Areas?

A June 2014 Governing column asked the question about how much the federal government and local governments should do to prevent development in areas with a high disaster risk.  Examining whether there was adequate notice and risk assessment for property owners caught in the tragic mudslide in Oso, Washington, the column concluded that while the federal government often has better risk assessment information, it falls on local governments to prevent high-risk development through zoning and manage immediate disaster response.

Compounding the problem is that many citizens look to government as the insurer of last resort. When natural disasters devastate local communities, a warm-hearted nation invariably provides help. Even small-government conservatives rally around government aid when their communities are affected, and such emergency aid is one of government’s most important roles. …By helping local communities rebuild, federal programs have often created targets for the next natural disaster by ensuring an ongoing cycle of devastate-rebuild-devastate.

Since the mid-2000s that’s started to change. The federal government’s recovery aid after both Katrina and Sandy have required tough new zoning and flood insurance requirements, including raising living quarters above flood levels and prohibiting rebuilding in the most endangered areas. But the underlying policy dilemma remains: Should the federal government be the insurer of last resort, with the responsibility for salvaging the housing decisions made by individual citizens and zoning policies set by individual communities?  …

But we’re making progress. Although Congress in March voted to cap potential premium increases under a revised National Flood Insurance Program, the new risk-based zoning and flood-insurance policies that appeared after Katrina and Sandy are steering investments away from the areas at greatest risk. We still have a long way to go, though, in sorting out just who ought to be in charge of what. We can’t stop natural disasters, but we need to do much better in setting the policies — at the federal, state and local levels — that help people figure out how much risk to take and what kind of help government will provide when disasters strike.