Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Protection from a sometimes vindictive mother…

Posted by Danny Morris on September 2, 2008

For now, it appears like New Orleans has mostly dodged a bullet with Hurricane Gustav. While power  remains down and there is mild flooding throughout the deserted crescent city, fears that we would witness the second-coming of Hurricane Katrina thankfully did not come to pass. Still, just because New Orleans survived this storm does not mean it will survive another storm that is perhaps a little more powerful and a little more on target, as Andrew Revkin highlights today on DotEarth.

Some of the questions brought up in the aftermath of Katrina and stirred up again with Gustav relate to human infrastructure in the face of a pissed-off mother nature. The flashy question is of course ‘is New Orleans worth saving?’ Another more nuanced, and ultimately more important, question though lingers in the background and that is ‘what can cities do to reduce their vulnerability to extreme weather events?’

The question is not as simple as reinforcing our infrastructure (i.e. building higher levees), because it doesn’t take a hurricane to show us that the systems we have to protect ourselves have pretty significant limits. The floods throughout eastern Missouri earlier this year were perfect examples of supposedly adequate infrastructure failing. Stupid policies, like offering tax incentives to developers who build levees that narrow the Mississippi River’s channel in order to throw up subdivisions and the country’s longest strip mall (in Chesterfield, MO) on former floodplains, don’t buttress these systems from letting people down either. Anyone who has taken any kind of river or hydrology course should be able to tell you that when you reduce a river’s channel, flood water doesn’t have much choice but to go up, and eventually over, the levees that restrict it. I have devised a series of equations that should highlight this concept:

Free money (tax breaks) + developers = new levees + smaller river channel

smaller river channel + high flood waters = broken levees

broken levees = sad people with wet houses

Solving these kind of problems will not be simple, but there may be some solutions on the way, courtesy of the nation-state of California. The state Senate there recently passed a bill that was designed to discourage suburban sprawl as part of the larger efforts to bring the state into compliance with AB 32, the sweeping climate change bill passed in 2006. Here’s a couple things the bill would do, according to the San Jose Mercury News:

The bill would require local governments to plan their growth so homes, businesses and public transit systems are clustered together. The goal is to help California meet the emission mandates spelled out in a wide-ranging greenhouse gas reduction law passed two years ago.

At the same time, it will encourage housing to be built closer to where people work and shop while discouraging the type of suburban sprawl that has characterized California’s development pattern for decades.

It requires local governments to submit regional development plans to state air regulators for approval, making them eligible for billions of dollars in state and federal transportation grants…

…[Sen Darrell Steinberg’s] bill requires the California Air Resources Board to work with local governments to set regional targets for reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Those targets would be used in transportation plans for each of the state’s 17 metropolitan regions.

Similarly, the state would create regional housing plans that take into account the transportation plans, putting more homes near rail and bus lines and within a short commuting distance of major employers.

Local governments and transit agencies that comply would get faster regulatory approval, including an easing of the usual environmental review requirements. That provision allows a major concession to developers by making it more difficult for opponents to sue them as a way to stop projects.

No doubt libertarians are shuttering from here to Zzyxx, CA (a real town, I promise), but if the bill passes, it may provide a useful template for other states to emulate. It’s not a huge leap to envision a similar bill discouraging additional developments in major floodplains and coastal areas while limiting the irresponsible growth of communities that are already exposed to elevated risks. Such efforts may not help solve the tricky problem of places like New Orleans, but it could help head off future problems. State senators, start drafting your legislation…

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