As category V Hurricane Rita threatens the Gulf Coast, we need to engage in a national debate about the appropriate role of the federal government in disaster relief. We have already committed $62 billion to Hurricane Katrina relief and that figure could go as high as $200 billion. If spending for Katrina, a category IV hurricane, costs the federal government that much, how much will Rita cost?
This well researched article in the St. Petersburg Times (hat tip: A_Shadow) explains that, despite environmentalist carping that Katrina was caused by the god of global warming, the Atlantic hurricane system has gone in 60-70-year cycles for millennia.
The last violent cycle wrapped up in the 1930s after leaving a wake of devastation to life and property that left thousands dead and vast portions of infrastructure destroyed. We then entered a calm cycle that persisted until about a decade ago. We are now again in a violent cycle that could bring frequent storms like Katrina and Rita for decades to come.
A significant problem is that much of the infrastructure in the impacted coastal regions was designed and built to the standards of the last calm cycle. With trillions of dollars of investment at that standard, it’s neither simple nor easy to rapidly upgrade everything to the standards required by a violent cycle.
Unfortunately, this appears to be one of those “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later” kind of things. While we will be forced to rebuild infrastructure after storms ravage areas, we could be proactive and start upgrading infrastructure now, but even that will take years or even decades. In the meantime more violent storms will hit. Some areas will be spared and others will be decimated.
Some argue that the federal government has no constitutional role (or a very limited one) in providing disaster relief (see here). Indeed, state and local governments, businesses, and individuals shouldered the burden of restoration during the last violent hurricane cycle. But it seems that the citizenry has lately come to accept the federal government as the ultimate insurance company. If that is the case, we taxpayers had better be prepared to pay increased “premiums” as the destruction toll increases over the next five or six decades. If Katrina payouts are any indication, it could eventually end up consuming most of our national budget.
I propose that we have an honest, forthright national debate – sans the emotionalism of being callous and uncaring – about the proper role of the federal government in disaster relief, given the increased risk we appear to be facing.