A flood of issues from one disaster

May 22, 2012

I was reading an article by Barry Saunders posted on the News Observer newspaper’s website entitled, “Pamlico County still recovering from floods.” It’s about difficulties with disaster recovery in Pamlico County, NC.  Directly or indirectly, it brought up a number of other issues surrounding disaster recovery.

For instance, one sentence said, “As is their wont, some people seem to be blaming the victims – either because they themselves don’t want to help or because they figure residents should have had adequate insurance or they think they should have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps by now.” 

This raises a big public policy question.  Should property owners be responsible for maintaining adequate insurance (1) to protect themselves and (2) so as not to burden other taxpayers with paying for their losses?  Shouldn’t someone purchasing property calculate the cost of maintaining insurance coverage into the cost of the purchase when making a decision to buy?  Doesn’t that make good financial sense?  And don’t forget renters – adequate insurance is important for them too.  How can this work, even for those who are of lesser means?

Another issue was raised by this, “A lot of county residents had let their flood insurance lapse because of a bad economy or were lulled into a false sense of security, she said, by – ironically – previous devastating floods that hit in 1999 and 2003. ‘People thought that we’d seen two really, really bad floods and just didn’t think we’d see another ‘100-year flood’ so soon, I thought that myself.’” 

While letting flood insurance coverage lapse because of economic hardship caused by a downturn in the economy is deeply unfortunate, being lulled into a false sense of security because you just had a “100-year flood” shows that the public needs to be better educated.    If we look at the risk of a 100-year flood as 100 to 1 odds and compare that to the odds in a horse race or to the odds of winning the lottery perhaps it becomes more understandable.  Just because the odds may be 100 to 1 for a 100-year flood or 500 to 1 for a 500 year flood, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen two years in a row.  Insurance is part of risk management.

The Barry Saunders article starts and ends by talking about the increasing difficulty in raising funds as you get further and further from the incident date.  A nonprofit organization, Eight Days of Hope, spawned by Hurricane Katrina, expects hundreds of its volunteers to visit Pamlico County, beginning Memorial Day weekend, to help rebuild homes damaged by the flooding and inundated with mold.  While Eight Days of Hope will provide the volunteers, many of them skilled in construction trades, the community is having difficulty raising enough money for the materials needed for rebuilding.  The disaster is off the headlines but is still impacting the survivors. 

The issue raised here is whether there needs to be a more balanced, longer-term view taken with respect to disaster response and recovery assistance.  More and more nonprofit organizations (many of them members of the National Organizations Active in Disasters or their state chapters) and corporate sponsors are moving toward this balancing.  So too is the Federal Government with the advent of theNational Disaster Recovery Framework.

So thank you to Barry Saunders for raising so many issues in one article.  Now let’s think about how these issues can be addressed.