September 16, 2004
By David Helvarg
Lloyds of London won’t insure the section of Florida that’s in the path of Hurricane Ivan. But the federal government does. Environmentalist Dave Helvarg is all for the government helping people—but against encouraging stupid building decisions. As he explains, tax subsidies actually encourage construction in areas that are vulnerable to hurricane damage.
David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign and the author of The War Against the Greens (Johnson Books, 2004) and Blue Frontier—Saving America’s Living Seas.
In the wake of Hurricanes Charley and Frances, and with Ivan now rolling in, we should extend all possible help to the people of Florida and the gulf. At the same time, it might be worth considering a name change for those sandy bits of landscape, detached from the mainland, that block the force of storms all along our eastern and gulf coasts. Barrier Island apparently isn’t a strong enough name for developers and homebuyers who choose to ignore what they’re barriers against. Maybe it would help to rename them impact islands—or how about DBD— Death By Drowning islands.
Barrier islands are like geology on amphetamines. Unarmored, they tend to move, by the decade, year, and season; sometimes in a single stormy day like August 13. That’s when Hurricane Charley created a 450-yard wide channel splitting North Captiva Florida in two, just as a 1921 Hurricane split North Captiva from Captiva.
Before federal flood insurance became available in1968, there was little incentive to build on barrier islands since no private insurance companies would take the risk, and no banks would provide mortgages without flood insurance.
But once the feds started offering the insurance (for an average $300-per-year premium), real-estate developers found mortgage bankers more than willing to lend them money, setting off a tsunami of new high-risk coastal construction. When Hurricane Frederick struck barrier islands off Alabama in 1979, for example, shattered beach cottages at Gulf Shores were quickly replaced by 14-story fully mortgaged condominiums.
Federal flood insurance covers up to $250,000 for property damage to homes and $500,000 for businesses. Storm-battered beach and barrier communities like West Hampton, Hilton Head and Palm Beach are also eligible for low-interest small business loans, federally funded reconstruction of highways, roads, and bridges and sand replenishment (new beaches).
By 1982, Congress began to see the folly of promoting this kind of dangerous development, so it passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, pronounced “Cobra.” CBRA excludes some 1.3 million acres of undeveloped barrier islands and flood plains from federal subsidies. It does not mean property owners in these areas can’t develop their land, only that they can’t bring in Uncle Sam as their real-estate partner.
Having passed some good legislation, Congress quickly went to work tampering with it. Beginning with the 104th Congress, the House and Senate have passed dozens of “technical corrections” to CBRA in order to restore federal subsidies to constituents’ properties. Rep. Allen Boyd, Jr., D-Fla., for example, has a bill in Congress to restore subsidies to coastal lands in Gulf County on the Florida panhandle, land that Lloyds of London refuses to insure, and which is now near the path of Hurricane Ivan. In another example of bipartisan salt-pork, on the last two days before the 1999 Thanksgiving break, Congress rushed through a number of “technical corrections” including 200 acres on North Captiva, the wealthiest ZIP code in America (located on Florida’s southwest coast). That change was requested by Republican Congressman Porter Goss of Florida—a man who obviously knows how to do things covertly— which may be why President Bush has nominated him to head the CIA.
While the Naples Daily News is reporting on how Goss helped taxpayers insure a number of North Captiva’s now hurricane-ruined multi-million dollar estates, it won’t be clear till the final damage assessments are in how many millions of our tax dollars will go to help the island’s wealthy mansion owners to rebuild in harm’s way. One suspects more tax dollars will rebuild the mansions than help displaced seniors living in trailer parks on the mainland.
An exceedingly modest first step toward reform took place in June. President Bush signed a bipartisan bill that will begin to limit mulitiple damage claims— mostly from barrier island residents. While these claims represent only two percent of federally insured properties, they result in 40 percent of damage payments
A larger problem is that, instead of expanding CBRA protections (to the West Coast among other at-risk locations), politicians like CIA nominee Porter Goss continue to place barriers in the way of sensible coastal planning. It makes one wonder what they mean by Central Intelligence.