Roger K. Lewis's Sept. 17 Real Estate column should be the centerpiece for the lessons learned from Katrina. For unfathomable reasons, we persistently ask taxpayers to foot the bill for bad decisions on the part of a few who want to live where they want to live and refuse to take the precautions needed to support their decisions.
While serving as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's regional director in Chicago during the floods of 1993, I found that many people lining up for assistance had lined up for the same assistance in previous floods.
It is possible to develop prudent wind, water and seismic standards and insist that development be consistent with these. These standards could be enforced by code, but enforcement seems not to have worked well: Look at Florida's Dade County, where the few houses built to wind standards weathered Hurricane Andrew well, but many not built in compliance with the code lost their roofs and more. The other option is to get the federal government out of the disaster-relief business and let the private insurance industry take care of it.
Risk-based premiums can be accurately set. The premiums for the California homeowner who builds to the local seismic standards should then be dramatically less than the premiums of those who do not. I remember seeing a telling picture of a block of homes leveled by the Northridge earthquake; only one home remained intact -- the one built to standards.
Changing mind-sets in which individuals, businesses and governments become responsible for their own decisions will be difficult. In a meeting of the regional directors at FEMA headquarters after the 1993 floods, I suggested that sometimes we had to say no. This idea was met with silence.
During that same era, I twice repaired the same set of levees on the Mississippi "horseshoe" at a cost of about $10 million each time.
The first time the levees gave way in 1993, I didn't give the repair a second thought, but when they gave way again in early 1994, I asked to see the topographical maps of the area. Those maps made it obvious that the area belonged to the river whenever it wanted it. I said no to the repair, but a call came from headquarters that overruled me.
President Bush's largesse in the Katrina recovery effort will cost every taxpayer on the order of $1,000. I can live with that this time, but the time to say no is getting close.
JOHN R. POWERS
The writer was director of FEMA's Region V from 1993 to 1995.
People don't seem to see the parallel between FEMA's trailer parks and the Great Society's urban renewal of the 1960s, which ruined some of the country's greatest cities. Urban renewal concentrated poor people in new slums, which were similar to FEMA's trailer parks, and drove other people into the suburbs.
Now the politicians want to repeat that mistake, just as they repeated it in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. The plan now is for displaced New Orleans residents to be returned to Louisiana to live in trailer parks on one or more vacant military bases.
Relocating New Orleans residents to economically viable communities with infrastructure that could support them would be a far preferable outcome. Many of the displaced would have opportunities they lacked in New Orleans. What opportunities will they have herded into an artificial refugee camp on an isolated, deserted military base with no economy, no infrastructure and no community support?
Cities are economic units, and no one should return to New Orleans unless it offers economic opportunity and some semblance of a viable community. The national tragedy of Katrina will be compounded if local politicians are allowed to attempt a '60s-style urban renewal with the federal money they are going to receive.