Am I the only so-o-o-cialist in the world who is annoyed at the way my homeowner’s insurance floats ever upward to cover the cost of homes that people deliberately build in harm’s way? Does anyone else wonder why local governments issue building permits in disaster-prone areas and why state and federal governments do nothing to discourage or prevent people from moving into areas where lives and property are put at risk? Is there really any justification for having you and me pay when houses built in the way of floods, tornadoes, and fires are reduced to piles of ash or sodden sludge?
In 2004, disaster-related economic costs in this country exceeded $145 billion, up from the $3.9 billion annual cost in the 1950s. The problem is not so much storms and fires allegedly related to global warming but the fact that too many people are building in risky areas. In Canada, where an expanding population is moving into forest fire-prone areas, citizens saw their homowner’s premiums rise 4.3 percent in 2001 over the previous year, a rise of 9.4 percent from 1997.
New Orleans was known to be at risk of disastrous hurricane damage for years before Katrina struck. Yet people were allowed to continue living and building in districts that scientists and government agencies recognized would flood—and flood catastrophically—when a major hurricane hit the city. Little was done to rebuild the eroded marshes and barrier islands that, before human intervention, protected the site where the city stands. Many parts of the coastal Southeast are prone to powerful storms and major flooding; the Midwest is notorious for its tornadoes, yet people are permitted to live in flimsy mobile homes throughout these regions.
And then we have California: what possesses humanity to build its homes in canyons whose ecology is evolved to thrive in brushfire?
Yes. Chaparral actually needs fire to germinate. Nature has designed plants that grow along the West Coast to function like torches. They’re bombs waiting to explode. This is something that has been widely known for years. But how do we respond? We let people build deep in a fire zone, and then we underwrite their short-sightedness.
When an insurer pays to rebuild a house incinerated in one of these fires, the operative word is we. The insurance company raises everyone’s rates to help cover its losses. This year the losses in California are likely to be huge. Topanga Canyon alone houses over 5,400 people. It is an area of extreme fire hazard and today is among many populated areas in the path of the vast wildfire presently consuming a large swath of Southern California, where more than 12,000 homes are at risk.
Why should firefighters lose their lives and every homeowner in the country see their insurance costs soar because foolish people insist on living in the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains, areas where wildfires and mudslides are part of the local environment’s natural cycle? Instead of relying on insurance companies to cover untoward and foolish risk and then screaming when the companies refuse to insure homes in disaster-prone regions—or raise premiums out of sight—we should be passing laws that prohibit people from deliberately building structures whose likely destruction will hit everyone’s pocketbooks.
Now, I yearn to get out of the city’s anthill as much as anyone else, and if I had enough money to build a manse in the Santa Monica hills, I’d be sorely tempted. But maybe if people who crave and can afford a pleasant, quiet environment were forced to stay in the city with the rest of us peons, we’d all have more livable cities! If, instead of running away from poorly planned, blight-ridden urban areas, wealthy homeowners lived in their cities, the money and political influence they would bring to the urb would fuel renovation, improvement, effective crime control, enforcement of noise abatement laws, better schools, walkable shopping districts, decent public transport, and green space.
And the rest of us would have lower homeowner’s insurance premiums.