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The Disincentive for Natural Disaster Preparation

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Interesting Times article on the battle between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and areas of Illinois over upgrading levees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Essentially, the Army Corps says the levees are not up to snuff and the communities say it is too expensive to upgrade them.

In the decentralized nature of American government, it’s easy to see why expensive infrastructure projects don’t get done and thus disasters strike the same areas again and again. The Army Corps took tons of heat after the levees failed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. So, realizing that previous standards were not up to snuff, particularly in low-lying easily flooded areas like New Orleans and the Illinois/Missouri banks of the Mississippi, it raised standards. It was only 1993 when this area flooded horribly; smaller floods take place frequently. It makes sense to upgrade the levees. But because the federal government doesn’t have the authority or the money to just take care of this itself, it has to rely on local communities. No one wants to remember the last natural disaster. They want to put their head in the sand, not pay the taxes to fix the levees, and then yell when they are flooded again. At the same time, this area of Illinois is very poor. Because we rely on local taxes for many local services, we ask poor people to protect themselves against flooding and they just can’t do it without real hardships.

It would be ideal to centralize these repairs in federal hands and provide the tax base for the Army Corps to fix the problem itself. But that’s obviously not happening.

Side note: The town of Alton, Illinois, pictured in the article, is most famous for the lynching of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. A mob killed him and threw his printing press in the river. It must have been very near where that grain elevator sits today. That’s all I could think of when I saw this photograph.

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