‘Cuz the Roof Don’t Leak When It’s Not Raining

… as the fool said, when asked why he was out on his roof, hammering shingles in the pouring rain. James Surowiecki at the New Yorker on predictably unexpected weather catastrophes and “Disaster Economics“:

… In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which brought havoc to the Northeast and inflicted tens of billions of dollars in damage, it’s overwhelmingly clear that parts of the U.S. need a Delta Plan of their own. Sandy was not an isolated incident: only last year, Hurricane Irene caused nearly sixteen billion dollars in damage, and there is a growing consensus that extreme weather events are becoming more common and more damaging. The annual cost of natural disasters in the U.S. has doubled over the past two decades. Instead of just cleaning up after disasters hit, we would be wise to follow the Dutch, and take steps to make them less destructive in the first place.

…[F]or the most part, the U.S. has shown a marked bias toward relieving victims of disaster, while underinvesting in prevention. A study by the economist Andrew Healy and the political scientist Neil Malhotra showed that, between 1985 and 2004, the government spent annually, on average, fifteen times as much on disaster relief as on preparedness.

Politically speaking, it’s always easier to shell out money for a disaster that has already happened, with clearly identifiable victims, than to invest money in protecting against something that may or may not happen in the future. Healy and Malhotra found that voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention, and it’s only natural that politicians respond to this incentive. The federal system complicates matters, too: local governments want decision-making authority, but major disaster-prevention projects are bound to require federal money. And much crucial infrastructure in the U.S. is owned by the private sector, not the government, which makes it harder to do something like bury power lines.

These are genuine hurdles… But there’s a more basic problem: the U.S., as a rule, tends to underinvest in public infrastructure. We’ve been skimping on maintenance of roads and bridges for decades. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our infrastructure a D grade, and estimated that we’d need $2.2 trillion to bring it up to snuff. Our power grid is, by the standards of the developed world, shockingly unreliable. A study by three Carnegie Mellon professors in 2006 found that average annual power outages in the U.S. last four times as long as those in France and seven times as long as those in the Netherlands. (The past two years’ data would likely be even worse.) This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy. But, though we may have the coolest twenty-first-century technology in our homes, we’re stuck with mid-twentieth-century roads and wires.

… The A.S.C.E. estimates that federal spending on levees pays for itself six times over, and studies of other flood-control measures in the developed world find benefit-to-cost ratios of three or four to one. The value for money is even higher in poor counties, where floods obliterate weak infrastructures. And a 2005 independent study of disaster-mitigation grants made by FEMA found that every dollar in grants ended up saving taxpayers $3.65 in avoided costs.

The size of our current deficit does not change this calculus. In fact, there’s never been a better time for a Delta Plan in the U.S. With interest rates so low, it’s cheap to borrow money, and there are plenty of unemployed workers and unused resources that can be put to work. In a time of austerity, there’s bound to be opposition to expensive infrastructure projects. But if the government—and, by extension, taxpayers—is already on the hook for all the damage caused when disasters strike, we owe it to ourselves to do something about how much those disasters cost.

My emphases. Maybe while we’re renovating the Statue of Liberty, we should sandblast off the Emma Lazarus poem and replace it with “Penny wise, pound foolish”.

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47 replies
  1. 1
    Canuckistani Tom says:

    It’s been done before.

    When Hurricane Hazel hit southern Ontario in 1954, dozens were killed when the rivers burst their banks and tore through subdivisions.

    In the aftermath, the province bought up tons of land in river valleys and turned it into parkland, and banned most new construction in flood plains.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E.....#Aftermath

  2. 2
    delosgatos says:

    voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention

    This is why we can’t have nice things.

  3. 3
    The Moar You Know says:

    But there’s just SO MUCH FUCKING MONEY to be made when nobody prepares for the inevitable!

  4. 4
    SFAW says:

    The Rethugs blocked a lot of “preventive maintenance” programs during Clintons terms, did their usual “the tax-and-spend LLLLiberals want to spend money on inner city basketball courts, what a bunch of bleeding hearts!” Nice to see that some things never change.

    Well, actually, I guess it’s not nice.

    Maybe while we’re renovating the Statue of Liberty, we should sandblast off the Emma Lazarus poem and replace it with “Penny wise, pound foolish sand, libtards!”.

    Fixed to reflect Rethug “ethos” more accurately.

  5. 5
    Gindy51 says:

    How about underground electric lines like the Netherlands or is that too socialist for the US?

  6. 6
    danimal says:

    Issues like this make me furious with Republicans and Republicanism. Simple, common-sense solutions to real, predictable problems are impossible to solve because of their completely idiotic ideology and two-year old style temper tantrums. They really are a danger to our nation and our national security.

  7. 7
    piratedan says:

    wow… finally someone gets it and I wish like hell we could have enough politicians in place to have this foresight brought into reality. Could easily use this kind of seawall and dam/dike system to protect the major harbors of the east coast, The Gulf ports and the Chesapeake. Likewise for the pacific ports or San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Anchorage…

  8. 8
    Walker says:

    My great-grandfather owned what is now known as Figure 8 Island outside of Wilmington, NC. Sold it for a song because everyone knows that beachfront property is a horrible investment in NC. Of course now it is filled with multimillion dollar homes ready to be bailed with taxpayer money when the next hurricane hits.

  9. 9
    LGRooney says:

    Easier to shell out money for a clean up afterwards because “any idiot can handle a crisis”

    More difficult to dole out for future contingencies and planning because “it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.”

    That quote comes from an old Chekhov poster I had in my dorm 20+ years ago.

  10. 10
    cervantes says:

    Yeah well the most productive investment would be to reduce carbon emissions.

  11. 11
    PeakVT says:

    @Canuckistani Tom: Well, soçialism believes in planning ahead, so we won’t have any of that down here.

  12. 12
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    @cervantes: It would help, but with our population as large as it is, a hurricane would be more expensive just due to the amount of people and the age of our infrastructure.

  13. 13
    Haydnseek says:

    @Canuckistani Tom: Tom, you’re fortunate to live in a country that can implement sane, logical, forward looking public policy. We used to be able to do that, now not so much.
    Can you picture attempting to fund infrastructure improvements to deal with potential disasters and using Holland and France as examples? They’re EUROPEANS! They represent SOCIALISM, which equals COMMUNISM! Of course, when the disaster strikes and all we can do is after the fact relief, they’ll complain that their FEMA trailers are going to hitched up in the middle of the night so they can be sent to an Obama-approved Muslim re-education camp, which was the plan all along.

  14. 14
    PeakVT says:

    @cervantes: It’s no longer an either/or question; there’s enough warming in the pipe that we need to both reduce emissions and embark on massive mitigation.

  15. 15
    The Moar You Know says:

    How about underground electric lines like the Netherlands or is that too socialist for the US?

    @Gindy51: Most neighborhoods built post 1970 in Southern California have them. Looks good. I can’t overstate how awesome it is to not have to look at powerlines.

    They don’t blow down in the storms we never get here. If the conduit floods or if the powerline dies due to old age (which is starting to happen here) they are a unholy bitch to replace.

    God help us if we ever get an 8+ earthquake here. Fixing the underground power could take years.

    Not the awesome cure-all some think it is.

  16. 16
    Dork says:

    My great-grandfather owned what is now known as Figure 8 Island outside of Wilmington, NC. Sold it for a song because everyone knows that beachfront property is a horrible investment in NC. Of course now it is filled with multimillion dollar homes ready to be bailed with taxpayer money when the next hurricane hits.

    This really makes me angry. People building in clearly dangerous locations should expect to lose their investment to a storm eventually, and factor that into the cost of the development.

  17. 17
    burnspbesq says:

    Glad the article pointed out that the continuing invisibility of the Invisible Bond Vigilantes makes this the perfect time to invest in infrastructure.

  18. 18
    KG says:

    @The Moar You Know: I suspect if/when the Big One hits, Southern California is going to be something of a cross between the world of the Walking Dead and Mad Max.

  19. 19
    techno says:

    Not long ago I was reading an essay written by someone who was visiting NW Denmark to inspect the progress made towards making a whole region energy sustainable. There were many interesting details for how this happened, but the most amazing for me was that in the late 1970s, local villiagers built a 2 MW wind turbine using volunteer help.

    “…the most famous wind turbine in Denmark, indeed at one time famous all over the world, the 2MW turbine built in 1978 at the Tvind school. While Germany was building the Grosse Wind-Anlage Growian, and NASA with Boeing and GE the Mod series, and the UK the Orkney group of turbines – all embarrassing and expensive failures – volunteers in Denmark built the Tvind machine…”

    I find it embarrassing that we in USA cannot make the sort of clear-headed decisions they make routinely in places like Holland and Scandinavia.. Maybe Bill Murray was right in Stripes—we are the garbage from all the respectable countries on earth.

  20. 20
    KG says:

    @Dork: please identify one location on the planet that is not “clearly dangerous” in some way.

  21. 21
    MattR says:

    @Canuckistani Tom: Interestingly the first thing I though of was the Red River Floodway that diverts water around Winnipeg. But I am guessing that annual floods are the exception to the rule that Anne Laurie quoted above.

    voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention,

  22. 22
    The Moar You Know says:

    I suspect if/when the Big One hits, Southern California is going to be something of a cross between the world of the Walking Dead and Mad Max.

    @KG: It won’t be the electricity or the shattered buildings, it’ll be twenty million people refugees and no water.

  23. 23
    SFAW says:

    @KG:

    please identify one location on the planet that is not “clearly dangerous” in some way.

    Thompson Lake, Maine.

  24. 24
    PurpleGirl says:

    WRT underground power lines: Lower Manhattan has underground power lines and phone lines. When those vaults flooded the systems were still taken down and are harder to repair. And the wiring was damaged by the sea water/salt.

    WRT infrastructure repair: An acquaintance lives on Avenue C in the Lower East Side. For a long time her phone would stop working after a rain. Now they might be fixing the basic wiring; at least I hope so. Verizon has told her that she’ll have the phone back on December 17th. (They keep changing the date when she’ll have the phone back.) Of course, the people who live in Alphabet City (as the area is known) are low income.

  25. 25
    👽 Martin says:

    I have long argued that the mandate was an acceptable solution in Obamacare because it would inevitably pave the way toward acceptance to single payer. Well, guess what? It’s happening:

    That may seem counter-intuitive. Why would an industry threatened by government insurance not want it to shrink?
    __
    The reason: hiking the Medicare eligibility age would throw seniors aged 65 and 66 off Medicare and into the private market, forcing insurers, who will soon be required to cover all consumers regardless of health status, to care for a sicker, more expensive crop of patients.
    __
    “The risk pool issue is important,” the insurance industry source said. “[I]f you add more older and sicker people to the pool, that’s definitely going to have any impact on premiums.”
    __
    The policy would save the federal government $113 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But it achieves that by raising the cost of private insurance: the Kaiser Family Foundation projected that a Medicare age of 67 would raise costs for under-65 patients by an average of $141 in 2014. (In practice it would be phased in.)

    They’re not going to say this too loudly, because the logical extension to the argument is that adding sub-65 year olds would be even more cost effective – particularly if you can get Medicare and Social Security phasing in at the same time, but if they can find a way to make this argument without the slippery slope, the insurers very well may do that. There’s an inevitable Laffer Curve argument to make in here.

    In short, if the analysis above can be sold by lobbyists to Congress, they’re saying that we’d all be better off by increasing payroll taxes by up to $141/year to fix Medicare than by doing anything the GOP says, because the alternative would be more expensive. That’d be $15B-$20B per year in increased revenue (probably $300B over 10 years, considering inflation). Not a ton, given the cuts we’ve been seeing proposed for Medicare, but it’d help a lot.

    In the end, insurers are going to help make the case for single-payer – at least with respect to Medicare Part A (hospitalization – the part where consumers have minimal choice) and possibly starting that coverage at 62 when SS starts, but keep B (doctor visits – the part where consumers have more choice) under the mandate. Something like that – and that’d be okay – it’d be another step in the right direction. Eventually, we’re going to get Part A or something similar for everyone, and insurers will help us get there because its in their economic self-interest to do so.

  26. 26
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:

    @KG:

    please identify one location on the planet that is not “clearly dangerous” in some way.

    Oh, for crap’s sake. Not all areas of the country are equally dangerous. Building on a beachfront that gets hammered by hurricanes on a regular basis is “clearly dangerous”. Building right next to a river that’s known to flood every other year is “clearly dangerous”. Building in the middle of a forest that’s known to catch fire every few years is “clearly dangerous”.

    Compare with building a house somewhere on the Plains. Yes, tornadoes happen, but the odds of one hitting you are pretty low, and tornadoes don’t tend to hit the exact same place year after year after year after year.

  27. 27
    SatanicPanic says:

    @KG: I’m heading for Mexico at the first sign of trouble

  28. 28
    Roger Moore says:

    @KG:
    I think Southern California is going to weather The Big One better than outsiders expect. The magnitude of the anticipated Big One down here smaller than it is in the Bay Area, and the San Andreas fault runs on the other side of the mountains here rather than right through the middle of the city. I’ve heard people suggest that a major earthquake on one of the faults that runs directly under downtown LA would do more damage than The Big One, even though it would probably be just below magnitude 7 rather than just below magnitude 8.

  29. 29
    gene108 says:

    This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy.

    THIS 10,000x OVER!

    There’s no country with more money to burn than the U.S.

    We’re only broke because we don’t collect enough money in taxes and blow it on things that impact very few people.

    I wish the MSM would latch onto this simple fact, the next time a politician says the U.S. should “manage its budget like a household”.

    In our case, the “household” is blowing 1/3 of its money on crystal meth and crack cocaine, while not bothering to charge renters money for living on its premises and then deciding it needs to kick grandma to the curb to support the moochers and our meth/crack habit.

    We’d have the money for nice things, if we charged higher rents and cut back on our meth/crack habit, but none of the Very Serious People on the outside looking in seems to be able to figure that out.

  30. 30
    Canuckistani Tom says:

    @MattR:

    @Canuckistani Tom: Interestingly the first thing I though of was the Red River Floodway that diverts water around Winnipeg. But I am guessing that annual floods are the exception to the rule that Anne Laurie quoted above.

    Yep, Duff’s Ditch. Named after Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin, the guy who got it built.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duff%27s_Ditch

    They laughed at Roblin. Then it was needed. Then they stopped laughing.

    In this case, the big difference between Southern Ontario & Southern Manitoba is topography. Southern Manitoba is fairly flat. As a result, when the Red River bursts its banks, the floodwaters stretch for tens of kilometres. I think in 1997 they reached 50 km wide.

    Southern Ontario is much hillier, and the river valleys are much deeper. Around here, if you’re not in the valley itself, you’ll be OK. So all that had to be done was get rid of the homes in the valleys and any really important pieces of infrastructure. If you look at a Google map of Toronto in Satellite mode, you’ll see that most of the greenspaces are linear, because they follow the river valleys. http://maps.google.ca/maps?hl=.....&z=12

    In Winnipeg, the ground is too flat, so instead they had to create Duff’s Ditch as a secondary channel to handle the excess flow. They were talking about doing something similar in N. Dakota, but that was a few years ago.

  31. 31
    👽 Martin says:

    @KG: There’s an app for that.

    Utah is a pretty big state – 31 disasters.
    Florida is a smaller state – 132 disasters.
    Texas is a larger state – 332 disasters.

    And lest we think it’s biased toward coastlines:
    Oklahoma is a smaller state than Utah – 167 disasters.
    California is a pretty big state with a fuckton of coastline and people – not to mention our fires, earthquakes and mudslides and occasional riots – 211 disasters.

    Data.

  32. 32
    Andyourpointis says:

    Volcano studies … What a freakin waste.

  33. 33
    LanceThruster says:

    Part of why the barn doors are always shut after the fact is that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

  34. 34
    MattR says:

    @Canuckistani Tom:

    Southern Manitoba is fairly flat.

    Tell me about it. Mom grew up in Winnipeg and Dad in Fargo, ND. We did some driving between the two on some family trips. It was amazing how the flatness and lack of trees really screwed with your perception of distances.

    They laughed at Roblin. Then it was needed. Then they stopped laughing.

    And this is the difference between annual floods like those on the Red River and random storms/floods. There is a short enough time between preparing for disaster and then utilizing that preparation (and it is obvious that the preparation is what is preventing disaster) that the voters will reward the people who had the foresight to prepare. (And I will stereotype Canadians as being wiser voters though the stupid is seeping through from the USA)

  35. 35
    LanceThruster says:

    @KG:

    And Red Dawn.

    Wolverines!

  36. 36
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    But there’s a more basic problem: the U.S., as a rule, tends to underinvest in public infrastructure

    Because, you know, the undeserving moochers (who invariably are brown or darker) will benefit from it without directly paying something to a private for profit entity, and that’s socia1ism. Or worse.

  37. 37
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @techno:

    Maybe Bill Murray was right in Stripes—we are the garbage from all the respectable countries on earth.

    Proof of this: assholes like Tom Tancredo, Rick Santorum, and Joe Arpaio.

  38. 38
    Chris says:

    @danimal:

    They really are a danger to our nation and our national security.

    By my count, conservatism’s come close to destroying the nation three times; once through violent revolution (the Civil War), once through disastrous economic management (the Great Depression) and once through nuclear war (fifteen years or so of constantly escalating Red Scare rhetoric culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we literally had people running the Joint Chiefs of Staff who couldn’t understand why nuclear war would be a bad idea).

    The Soviet Politburo and Osama Bin Laden’s inner council must’ve cried themselves to sleep many a night wishing they could inflict even one percent of the damage on America that our conservatives have done. The greatest threats to national security are always the ones that you can’t deal with through the national security organs.

  39. 39
    Mino says:

    The only up side to this is that the US and Asia may finally acknowlege planetary warming in time to save ourselves if we are the ones bearing the brunt of its effects. Imagine if only islands were being drowned.

  40. 40
    Seanly says:

    I could become a front pager just trying to discuss infrastructure investment and prioritizing for disasters.

    When we talked about planning for a hurricane in wind engineering class, one of the issues is how much money can you justify when the probability of any one location being hit is so low (even taking into account the wide swath of a hurricane)?

    Bridges tend to be very resilient against wind and against the storm surge. After Katrina, we did update our understanding of potential for higher water levels in coastal areas to avoid unseating beams.

    Our underinvesting in infrastructure though is independent of disasters. Bridges are a living & breathing structure, alone out in the elements, experiencing heavier & more frequent traffic. We design nowadays for a 75-year life, but in the past that wasn’t even considered. Understanding of fatigue, wind, water and seismic loadings have all greatly advanced in the last 20 to 40 years (and still are advancing). We have lots of old bridges experiencing loads they were never designed for (both in terms of increased live load and in terms of lack of knowledge). The only thing keeping many of the older bridges up is good luck and old fashioned engineers who’d over-design. I marvel that we don’t hear every day about a bridge collapse. Sooner or later, our willful disregard for our infrastructure will bite us in the ass.

  41. 41
    Tbone says:

    FEMA has a grant program called the pre disaster mitigation program. My firm has been able to secure funding for a couple flood control projects. It’s a great program for small to medium sized stuff, in the $10-$100 million dollar range.

    Of course, it’s way underfunded, and incredibly competitive. All fema issues aside, they do great work at the local level on disaster mitigation. Us civil engineers are here to try to prevent some moron from putting their living room in the middle of a floodplain. You’re welcome, jerks!

  42. 42
    Freemark says:

    This is why it is so frustrating living in the US. We could literally borrow 2 trillion dollars to fix all of the infrastructure and with the interest it would still be much cheaper than waiting to fix it later. But unfortunately, here in the US of A, we have the highest bankruptcy rate, the highest incarceration rate, and the highest moron rate in the world.

  43. 43
    Lee Rudolph says:

    But unfortunately, here in the US of A, we have the highest bankruptcy rate, the highest incarceration rate, and the highest moron rate in the world.

    USA!!! USA!!!

  44. 44
    Lee says:

    @👽 Martin:

    FYI 203 of those in Texas are fires. I think last year significantly bumped up our total.

  45. 45
    Lee says:

    @Tbone:

    Would you happen to have a link to that program?

    thanks,

  46. 46
    A.J. says:

    “Healy and Malhotra found that voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention…”

    How is that any different from what we do with health care? At least we are consistent, as in wrong.

  47. 47
    fidelio says:

    @Seanly: “I could become a front pager just trying to discuss infrastructure investment and prioritizing for disasters.”

    I would love to see a regular series on this here. I can still see the collapsed I-35 bridge in my mind’s eye, and I don’t even live in Minnesota.

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