“Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”
— George W. Bush, Sept. 2
Now that a suitable interval has passed, perhaps it’s time to return to the question of Sen. Trent Lott’s house. What interests me is not the now-tired question of whether the president ought to have promised to rebuild the Mississippi senator’s family home on the Pascagoula beachfront before mentioning the lost homes of thousands of much poorer, less notorious people. What interests me is why his house was built on the beach in the first place.
At first glance, the answer appears simple. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the senator’s home, it’s pretty safe to guess that he wanted to live by the water because it’s psychologically soothing and aesthetically pleasing. It’s quieter too, having seagulls instead of neighbors. It’s nicer to sit on the porch.
But it’s also true that many people build houses along the water because it makes economic sense to do so. Houses or apartments with ocean views command higher prices. Beachfront property owners can demand higher rents. Beachside businesses — casinos, hotels, restaurants — spin money. And, best of all, the risks of owning beachfront property — risks from floods, hurricanes and erosion — are covered by other people. Federally subsidized flood insurance programs and state-subsidized beach “re-nourishment” programs ensure that taxpayers — rich, poor, local, national — pay for damage to property built close to the water. To put it differently, Lott’s house was on the beach because you and I paid for it.
Barring an unforeseen dose of political sanity, we’re about to subsidize the reconstruction and even the expansion of more susceptible beachfront communities too. Leave aside New Orleans for a moment, with its special history and its peculiar geography. Focus instead on the rest of the Gulf Coast, much of which was wiped out no less thoroughly. Just like other hurricane-prone, flood-prone, erosion-prone parts of the country — the Florida Keys, the Outer Banks, the Texas and California coasts — the Gulf Coast recently has experienced an extraordinary building boom. In 2003 approximately 153 million people lived in U.S. coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since 1980. By 2008, 7 million more will probably have moved there, too.
As a result of this success, beach developers tend to be disproportionately wealthy and politically influential, and therefore unusually good at fighting zoning laws and grabbing subsidies. Even after Hurricane Andrew forced Florida to establish stricter building codes, the owners of hot Florida Panhandle real estate managed to get a raft of exemptions for their region. One North Carolina beach community, Emerald Isle, has collected millions of dollars in state and federal money to combat erosion — even though some 80 percent of Emerald Isle’s new artificial beach is privately owned and inaccessible to the public, which paid for it. As The Post’s Michael Grunwald recently pointed out, Lott himself used his political clout to force an Army engineer out of his job after the man had the temerity to suggest that Mississippi stop building casinos along the flood-prone coast. Twenty of those casinos were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the 16,000 people who worked in them have lost their jobs and probably their homes as well.
The pattern doesn’t hold across the country, away from the ocean: Entire towns happily moved uphill after catastrophic flooding in the Midwest in the 1990s, when the government paid them to leave. But with a few exceptions, coastal victims of hurricanes and floods have not only refused to move inland, they’ve also used post-disaster government funding to build more and higher buildings, with fewer restrictions then ever before.
To reverse this trend, politicians would have to do a lot more than write checks and come up with neat new names for old housing programs. Instead, they would have to force coastal property owners to pay the real cost of the risk they incur by building in dangerous places. They would not only have to stop subsidizing flood insurance, they also would have to require developers to pay heavier taxes and higher insurance premiums. They would have to alter incentives in order to encourage building farther inland. They would have to enforce stricter building codes. In barrier islands and other truly unstable places, zoning laws should prevent any new construction at all.
Such proposals would, of course, be the kiss of death for almost any politician. After all, they go against two important American principles: property owners’ right to build what they want, and the government’s obligation to bail them out afterward. Those are the principles supported by the rugged inhabitants of Denver and Los Angeles, who build houses ever closer to forests that periodically burn, and those are the principles supported by the denizens of seaside Pascagoula. At least when President Bush finally gets around to drinking his alcohol-free mint julep on Lott’s new porch, we can hope that he raises a glass to those of us who made it all possible.