FEMA's Unnatural Disasters

Is Katrina the beginning of a trend?


Since the beginning of the 20th century, the average number of deaths from hurricanes per year in the United States has been falling. Katrina's rising death toll may have interrupted that positive trend.

Indur Goklany from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Policy Analysis provides data showing that more than 800 Americans per year lost their lives to hurricanes between 1900 and 1909. However, a huge proportion of those deaths occurred because of the devastating hurricane that killed more than 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas in 1900. The next highest hurricane death toll occurred between 1920 and 1929 in which an average of 253 Americans per year were killed by hurricanes. Again, this number was substantially boosted by a single devastating storm, the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, in which between 1,700 and 2,300 people lost their lives. Somewhat reminiscent of Katrina's devastation, the hundreds drowned by the 1928 hurricane perished because dikes holding the lake failed.

Nevertheless, since 1930, the average annual number of deaths from hurricanes has been on a more or less steady decline, reaching a low of only 13 deaths per year in the 1980s. Goklany also shows that the annual death rate per million people has also been falling, sinking to an annual low of only 9 deaths per million last decade. The last single hurricane that killed more than 100 Americans was hurricane Agnes in 1972. This happy trend existed even though an estimated 50 million additional residents have moved to coastal regions during the past 25 years.

Prior to Katrina, it could reasonably be argued that declining mortality rates from hurricanes in the U.S. were the result of better long-range warning systems, sturdier houses, improved roads, comprehensive evacuation planning, and high quality hospitals. So why did all this fail when Katrina struck? Is Katrina a fluke or is it possible that government programs are in fact making us less safe?

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages people to live in harm's way. As of 2004, the NFIP had issued more than 4.4 million flood insurance policies in approximately 20,000 communities nationwide, representing nearly $637 billion worth of coverage. Since it was established in 1969, the program has paid $12.7 billion in flood insurance claims and related costs. In recent years, the NFIP has collected $1.1 billion in premiums and paid out around $1 billion in damages each year. Currently, the NFIP has about $1.1 billion in reserves; estimates are that the NFIP will have to pay out more than $10 billion in claims for the houses and businesses destroyed by Katrina. People should be told that this is the last time that the Feds will pay flood insurance claims to owners in areas prone to flooding. If private insurers want to take the risk, then their stockholders, not taxpayers, will be on the hook.

Next, let's set aside the larger question of whether or not the government should be encouraging people to live below sea level at all. The fact is that the federal government, which is in charge of all navigable waterways, failed to provide adequate infrastructure to prevent the inundation of a city which was home to nearly a half million people. The failure of the levees protecting New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana perfectly illustrates the fact that politicians generally engage in short term thinking. Merely maintaining or bolstering some boring old levees will not garner many more votes. But senators and representatives who vote to spend the most tax dollars on restoring New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will become the heroes.

Levee building in the Mississippi basin was largely under local and state control until 1917 when the Feds took over. Until then, states and counties formed levee districts that taxed local citizens for levee construction and maintenance. Local control meant that the people who lived by the levees had to pay for the risks of doing so. In the modern era, instead of taxing local citizens to take care of levees known to be inadequate, New Orleans' political leaders just waited for federal money that never came.