Monday, August 21, 2006

Treat All Disasters As If They Were Trivialities

Disaster survival tip number one: if you buy one of those no-battery shake-em-up flashlights keep in mind that because of the shape of the flashlight and the bone and muscle configuration of the human arm, it’s impossible to charge one of those things without looking exactly like you’re giving a handjob to the Jolly Green Giant’s condom-wearing brother. Ironically, such behavior is illegal in the Bible Belt, which contains the states most likely to be hit by disaster-inducing storms. So buy lots of batteries and resign yourself to the knowledge that most of them will be dead by the time you need them.

Of course, there’s lots of other things you (and your community!) should do to prepare for a disaster, but according to this story in Time magazine, not enough Americans are doing them:
the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them. Dennis Mileti ran the Natural Hazards Center for 10 years, and is the country's leading expert on how to warn people so that they will pay attention. Today he is semiretired, but he comes back to the workshop each year to preach his gospel. This July, standing before the crowd in a Hawaiian shirt, Mileti was direct: "How many citizens must die? How many people do you need to see pounding through their roofs?" Like most people there, Mileti was heartbroken by Katrina, and he knows he'll be heartbroken again. "We know exactly--exactly--where the major disasters will occur," he told me later. "But individuals underperceive risk."

Historically, humans get serious about avoiding disasters only after one has just smacked them across the face. Well, then, by that logic, 2006 should have been a breakthrough year for rational behavior. With the memory of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, still fresh in their minds, Americans watched Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, on live TV. Anyone who didn't know it before should have learned that bad things can happen. And they are made much worse by our own lack of ambition--our willful blindness to risk as much as our reluctance to work together before everything goes to hell.
It’s that last sentence which makes me reluctant to present this article to a libertarian audience. Because generally speaking, it isn’t talking about the types of disasters that can be solved by rugged individual self-reliance. I’m prepared for an event that could make my neighborhood lose power for a week or two — I’ve got bottled water, porno flashlights, food and other supplies. But those aren’t the preparations the article is talking about.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and the state legislature managed to pass mandatory building codes this year. Most states already have such codes. Florida has had a strict one in place since 2001, and structures built under it tend to be the ones left standing after a 120 m.p.h. wind rips through. We know that for every dollar spent on that kind of basic mitigation, society saves an average of $4, according to a 2005 report by the nonprofit National Institute of Building Sciences. Then there's Mississippi, which, believe it or not, still has no statewide building code. Katrina destroyed 68,729 houses there. But this year a proposed mandatory code, opposed by many builders, real estate lobbyists and homeowners, ended up voluntary.

Here’s the libertarian philosophical conundrum. How much authority should the government have to regulate how you build your home? The boilerplate answer is that you can build any kind of house you want so long as you don’t hurt anybody else. I don’t support “snob zoning” laws requiring homes and lots to be a minimum size to keep the riff-raff out, but I have no problems with building codes which require people living in close quarters to have septic tanks or sewer hook-ups rather than inflict outhouse odors on their neighbors.

And to be honest, I don’t mind laws which say “you can’t build a house with an extremely high probability of being destroyed by the forces of nature within a few years.” I don’t know what my local building codes are, but I’m certain that roofs must be able to support the weight of at least three feet of snow and even though this violates proper libertarian principles I’m too soft-core to care.

Of course, this analogy doesn’t apply to anti-hurricane building codes. Snow in New England is an ordinary winter phenomenon, not a catastrophic event. What’s more, if my roof collapsed in a snowstorm it would only be dangerous to people in my house. But in a hurricane, pieces of your demolished house can go on to become dangerous projectiles damaging the homes of others.

Anyway, building codes alone won’t save everybody. After discussing situations like floods, where even people in windproof homes would need to evacuate, the article says this:

People cherry-pick the lessons of Katrina to avoid taking action. Fifty-four percent of those who say they wouldn't evacuate are worried that the roads would be too crowded, and 67% believe shelters would be dangerous. That's understandable, unfortunately. One of the most damaging legacies of Katrina might be the TV images of looting and the graphic rumors of violence that crystallized our belief that we turn into savages in a disaster--a notion that is demonstrably untrue; after most disasters, including Katrina, the crime rate goes down. Ironically, 66% of those surveyed were also confident that if they stayed at home, they would eventually be rescued--a faith hardly justified by the Katrina experience. Ours is a strange culture of irrational distrust--buoyed by irrational optimism.


Heat waves bring out the same kind of self-delusion. Scott Sheridan, professor of geography at Kent State University, has studied heat-wave behavior--focusing particularly on seniors, who are at special risk in hot weather--in Philadelphia; Phoenix, Ariz.; Toronto; and Dayton, Ohio. He found that less than half of people 65 and older abide by heat-emergency recommendations like drinking lots of water. Reason: they don't consider themselves seniors. "Heat doesn't bother me much, but I worry about my neighbors," said an older respondent.

I can sympathize with people who won’t leave their homes before a storm. (I wouldn’t mind leaving if I knew I could return as soon as the storm ended, but that would never happen — instead, the National Guard would be called out to keep everyone away until the government decided it was safe.) But who the hell is too stubborn to drink extra water in a heat wave?

By the way, I think Amanda Ripley, the author of this piece, has some libertarian leanings of her own. Check this out:

When Americans cannot be trusted to save themselves, the government does it for them--at least that's the story of mandatory car insurance, seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But when it comes to preventing disasters, the rules are different. The message, says Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association, is consistent: "We will help you build where you shouldn't, we'll rescue you when things go wrong, and then we'll help you rebuild again in the same place." . . . . Nationwide, only 20% of American homes at risk for floods are covered by flood insurance. Private insurers largely refuse to offer it because floods are such a sure thing. In certain flood-prone areas, the Federal Government requires people to buy policies from the government's National Flood Insurance Program to get a mortgage loan. But the program has never worked even remotely as insurance should. It has never priced people out of living in insanely risky areas. Instead, too few places are included in the must-insure category, and premiums are kept artificially low.
Keep the government out of the insurance business, and let the free market save people from dying in floods.

6 Comments:

Anonymous A Moose said...

a notion that is demonstrably untrue; after most disasters, including Katrina, the crime rate goes down.

Perhaps this is one of the most damning statements. People don't realize how dangerous normal life is, then they revel in something out of the ordinary.

In regards to codes...when doctors screw up, they kill off people one at a time typically. However, engineers tend to get them at a much higher rate. As such, there is probably some value in requiring licensing to meet minimum standards of practice. However, when you have codes, you now have redundancy which does tend to conflict at times. My personal opinion is that design professionals should be allowed to be design professionals, and let tort liability take care of the rest. Too many times codes are used for political reasons, when there really needs to be a snow loading of four feet, instead of three, but someone thinks that would make it too expensive.

Katrina was an example of this. The levy that failed was designed to a level that someone had determined to be cost effective. The probability of a storm of that magnitude times the risk in any given year times the damage was compared against the cost of the additional design. Unfortunately, the same people who are whining the loudest would be the same ones who would whine about the additional cost had it been built to a higher standpoint initially.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous mediageek said...

FWIW, Lawdog has a pretty good blog post on emergency preparedness.

Meditations on Evacuations

Oh, and get rid of the gimmicky shake-light and get a real one.

Surefire's products aren't cheap, but they're the best I've found, and the Lithium 123A batteries have a shelf life of a decade.

For an emergency light, consider one of the LED lamps. They last much longer, though they aren't as bright.

8:48 AM  
Blogger David Macharelli said...

Naturally, Moose. The best part is that there's no way to prove that the enhancements worked where the previous system would have failed, so unless there is a disaster, people will grouse about wasting money.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Instead, too few places are included in the must-insure category, and premiums are kept artificially low.

That may have been true at one point, but now things are swinging the other way. FEMA is declaring all sorts of areas as "flood zones" now to beef up the numbers of people paying for federal flood insurrance.

Case in point: I have to by flood insurrance to get a mortgage for a house I'm buying, because approximately 35 square feet on the lowest corner of the lot (also the point on the property furthest from the house) falls in a hundred-year flood plain that was declared in the last three years. (The last time the house changed hands, 3 years ago, flood insurrance was not required.)

She's half right: premiums are kept artifically low in the areas where there is a substantial risk of flood. But many other homeowners in areas with very remote risks are now being forced to subsidize the high-risk areas.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

FEMA is declaring all sorts of areas as "flood zones" now to beef up the numbers of people paying for federal flood insurrance.

Possibly, but realize that one of the extrapolated issues with development is increased runoff. Most detention structures are designed for a 10 yr storm (or 10% probability in any given year). Meanwhile, they allow through some overflow mechanism a 100yr storm to pass, and increase the aggregate runoff during that time, as well as affect the time of concentration. To not over-engineer the blog, it takes, say, 10 min for water to flow across the grass to a point. With asphalt, it only takes 4 min, as there's not as much slowing it down.

The net effect is that the 100 yr floodplain (a 1% chance in any given year) increases, due to more water over a shorter timeframe. Intense rainfall typically doesn't last long, so if you decrese the time for all that water to get to where you are, you'll get a bigger amount as a peak flow.

FEMA's floodplain maps are based on a 100 yr storm, not the 10 yr storm that the detention structure is based on.

Basically, if you're downstream, the developer just screwed you, as you don't get a part of the "impact fees" that they get for proffers, etc.

Full disclosure: I do have an engineering degree, actually a couple, and am a licensed engineer. Disclaimer: don't go suing anyone based on the above information, it's general concepts only and intended for general discussion, not for specific professional opinions on anything

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I have mixed feelings on mandatory flood insurance. The government isn't really there to prevent you from making bad gambles on real estate. However, the law does provide rescue services. So the government's interest isn't really in your ability to pay for repairs to your house after the flood, but rather in limiting the number of people in need of rescue.

Maybe higher property taxes for high risk areas, and lower property taxes for areas at lower risk? The taxes could be adjusted in a revenue-neutral manner, and would be reflected in rents. To keep the assessments honest, municipalities could be required by state law to carry insurance to cover the cost of rescue operations. Local municipalities could select coverage from competing private insurers, with the proviso that the premiums must be paid out of property taxes.

This would not pass libertarian purity tests, of course, but it would achieve the goal of making rents reflect risks, and also achieve the goal of having rescue operations paid for by the taxpayers who chose to assume the risk of living in dangerous areas.

6:06 PM  

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