• 68°

Give hurricane victims a choice on aid

By Virginia Postrel

Bloomberg View

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser made a provocative proposal: Instead of spending billions in federal dollars to rebuild the city, why not give the money to residents to rebuild their lives?

“Imagine that we were to spend $100 billion on infrastructure for the residents of the city,” he wrote. “An alternative to this spending is to give each one of the city of New Orleans’ residents a check for more than $200,000,” or $75,000 if expanded to include the residents of the entire metro area. In an impoverished city, that money would be life-changing.

It didn’t happen, of course.

In the end, the federal aid totaled more than $120 billion. The $8.9 billion “Road Home” program gave about 130,000 homeowners money for rebuilding, through a confusing and often-frustrating process. Taxpayers spent a fortune on New Orleans, but the money wasn’t life-changing, or even life-restoring.

Houston is no New Orleans. When the Brookings Institution ranked the prosperity growth of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, New Orleans came in dead last. (The ranking tracked changes in productivity, average annual wage, and living standards from 2010 to 2015.) Houston, by contrast, was second only to Silicon Valley. Houstonians don’t need to escape the area to build better lives. Theirs is a city of hope where ordinary people come to find jobs, buy houses, and live the middle-class dream.

But Glaeser’s basic idea still makes sense there.

Only 17 percent of Houston area homeowners have flood insurance, and federal disaster relief pays a pittance — capped at $33,000 and often much less — compared with the cost of rebuilding. Nearly 60 percent of city residents are renters, and they, too, have lost not only their homes but many of their possessions. Once the initial fight for survival is over, many Houstonians face financial disaster.

At the same time, Harvey has heightened awareness that the city needs to adapt to limit future flooding. Houston is on a flat coastal plain with clay soil that doesn’t absorb water easily. Pavement exacerbates the problem. The glib response is to decry “development” and advocate stricter regulations — to call for Houston to mimic the unaffordable, anti-growth cities of the West Coast and Northeast.

But destroying the dynamic housing market that has made Houston a middle-class mecca would create a different kind of disaster.

Besides, most parts of the U.S. are vulnerable to natural catastrophes. We Southern Californians receive endless mockery for our droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes, often from people living in hurricane or tornado zones. If Americans can live only where there’s no risk, we wind up with the scenario a friend suggested on Facebook: “We can have all 320 million Americans move to the Atlanta-Charlotte-Memphis triangle. Well, until tornadoes hit and destroy large amounts of housing.”

As they recover from Harvey, Houstonians will have to decide where they will live. That’s where Glaeser’s idea comes in. Keep aid to displaced residents simple. Don’t distinguish between relocation and rebuilding. Don’t demand extensive documentation. Simply issue checks based on where people lived when Harvey hit and let them decide how best to recover.

Some people may want to leave town altogether, making their way to less hurricane-prone places like Dallas, Denver, or Atlanta. Others may choose area neighborhoods less vulnerable to future floods. Thanks to an online tool created by Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at the Galveston campus of Texas A&M, you can now type in an address in Harris (Houston) or Galveston County and see scores for its risk of hurricanes, floods, wildfire, air pollution and earthquakes.

Don’t actively encourage people to stay in the riskiest places. Foster not “rebuilding” but recovery.

Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.

Comments

Crime

Blotter: Thousands of dollars in lumber taken from Newsome Road house

Local

Locals react to Chauvin verdict, reflect on work still to do

Business

With remote expansion, outsource provider FCR looks to become an ‘exceptional part’ of Rowan community

Local

City expects $1.5 million surplus in current budget, ability to raise some wages for police, public works

Education

Enochville Elementary to host farewell event May 1

High School

High school softball: Carson beats West in a wild one

College

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson will speak at NC State graduation

High School

Wonders, Trojans facing off Monday on Cannon Ballers’ field

Local

City approves two apartment developments, more than 160 new units

Nation/World

Crowds react with joy, wariness to verdict in Floyd’s death

News

Bill seeks to end pistol purchase permits from NC sheriffs

Coronavirus

Rowan County sees 300th death attributed to COVID-19

News

Chauvin convicted on all counts in George Floyd’s death

Local

Top North Carolina House finance chair, Rowan representative stripped of position

Crime

One charged, another hospitalized in fight between cousins

Local

Bell Tower Green renamed to honor Stanbacks; Nancy Stanback receives key to city

Business

Commissioners green light additional houses at Cherry Treesort in China Grove

Education

A.L. Brown will hold in-person, outdoor graduation

Local

Granite Quarry awards FEMA contract for Granite Lake Park

Local

City to vote on apartment developments, final phases of Grants Creek Greenway project

High School

High school football: North receiver McArthur a rising star

Columnists

Carl Blankenship: Pollen and prejudice make their return

News

Harris pitches $2.3T spending plan on trip to North Carolina

Nation/World

Murder case against ex-cop in Floyd’s death goes to the jury