Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's Not My Fault You Chose to Live Near a River

Normally I have tremendous sympathies for all of my brethren, and breth-women, in the Midwest. I have a slow cooker; I shovel snow and clear off my neighbor's sidewalk, hills scare me. But whenever spring rolls around there are always stories like this one where some Midwestern town, located along a river, faces destruction because there's a flood.

This year it's North Dakota, last year it was Iowa. In 2007, historic flooding hit Kansas. In 2006 it was Minnesota that had serious flooding. Every spring floods hit, every summer farmers complain about droughts, and every fall the world does not come to an end.

Now in case any of y'all in the South or West are wondering, rivers in the Midwest do not randomly start searching each spring for some unsuspecting town to attack and flood. No, people choose to live next to rivers, which is largely a function of history. Rivers USED TO provide a critical transportation link and promote economic growth. The carbonly evil automobile solved all that, but most of the towns along rivers never really shut-down.

Only problem with all of this is that the Federal Government is the nation's primary provider of flood insurance. I have only one question to ask here - ah, WHY?

Well because the Federal Government has externalized all of the risk that people who live in flood areas have on those of us who are smart enough to decide that we don't want to live near rivers, or oceans, or lakes, or even retention ponds. In the 1960's, as this John Tierney column points out, the Feds starting offering heavily subsidized insurance to people in flood areas, but only about 1/3 of eligible people bought it. The other 2/3 correctly guessed that FEMA would save them when disaster struck. They were right in the case of New Orleans, and the pictures of people being pulled out of flooded cars on the news usually precedes an announcement by the Feds of disaster areas and checks in the mail.

Now in Fargo we are getting a lot of very emotionally moving stories about folks who are fighting a rising river to save their homes. Look, I feel for them, but let's say that these folks lived next to an active volcano, and we were reading about attempts to build a lava levy or roofs to prevent ash from burying their homes. I suspect we'd all be thinking "Sorry I'm not them, but hey, what did they think was going to happen? It was sort of stupid deciding to live near a volcano and thinking it would not erupt." And I doubt we'd be happy that our tax dollars were going to pay to REBUILD their homes next to the volcano so it could happen again.

Now there is some good news on this front because one private insurer wants to get more actively involved in the business of flood insurance, so perhaps we can begin to push the Feds out of this horrible practice. But the way politics works I doubt that will happen soon.

Your tax dollars at work - abating other people's risky, and somewhat stupid behavior. We don't need to live next to rivers in the Midwest anymore, and we certainly don't need to subsidize people who want to live near them.

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