The opportunity of a disaster
Hurricane Ian and the western drought point to the need for a new national approach to disaster recovery.
Does the likelihood of more massive disasters suggest a New Deal approach is needed? (Poster by Ben Shahn, 1937, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York)
The governor of Florida says it will take years to rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Ian. That means the heartbreak of lost loved ones and destroyed homes and businesses is only the first stage of pain for the people who were in Ian’s path — because they will be trying to heal their financial wounds for a long time to come.
As will we all, it seems. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants a full-scale federal disaster response for his state, and he will surely get it — billions of dollars in aid from taxpayers, that is — and we all should try to be the kind of people who only rarely mention that DeSantis voted when he was a member of Congress to block similar help for New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. My dear mother’s voice is in my head just now: No, being as selfish as somebody else is not the way to stop selfishness. I never got around to explaining cynical political opportunism to my mother, but I know it would have made her very sad.
Anyway, the disaster’s victims deserve a caring response. Of course, tax dollars alone won’t rebuild what Ian has wrecked. A quick analysis estimated that private insurers will wind up paying up to $40 billion, though a lot of the damage isn’t covered by insurance.1 And there will be private charity; even before the skies had cleared over Florida, cable channels were carrying appeals for donations to help.
“We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude,” DeSantis said in a press briefing. But Floridians and others who live near coasts may want to get used to it, since scientists agree that climate change has made storms this violent more likely.
So chances are good that what is rebuilt now will need to be rebuilt again — perhaps even before the expensive and arduous rebuilding just ahead is done. And that’s not the only challenge in the Sunshine State: Even aside from huge disasters, rising seas will put a lot of Florida real estate underwater within a few decades. Who will cover all those losses?
It might make you wonder whether it’s wise to invest in Florida real estate anymore. Which might be a good question for even those of us who don’t aspire to be snowbirds. Maybe it’s time to ask whether we as a society are doing enough to discourage growth where nature seems to be telling us it doesn’t belong, and whether we might instead do more to encourage growth where it’s needed..
As natural disasters grow in frequency and intensity due to human-caused climate change, and as the cost of rebuilding rises because of the expensive infrastructure we’ve built on fragile lands, we need to consider this: What does recovery mean? Maybe what we need to focus on recovering isn’t what we’ve built, but what sustained life before all that building.
It’s not just Florida
Before we get to whether it’s politically pragmatic to even raise such questions, we need to acknowledge that we’re not talking about just Florida here, or about anyplace else in Ian’s path. Consider, for instance, the American West, which faces a crisis that is more slow-moving, but also potentially catastrophic. A megadrought, the most severe in 1,200 years, has gripped the West since the start of this century. A key climate scientist worried aloud not long ago that “the worst-case scenario keeps getting worse.” No, humans didn’t cause the drought, but we did make it worse: A recent study concluded that 42 percent of the West’s soil moisture deficit since 2000 has been caused by human-induced climate change.2
So now there are questions about whether there will be enough water in the Colorado River to supply all the needs of the 40 million people who draw from it in seven western states — who, by the way, use more water than people in any other region of the country.
So far, climate change hasn’t seemed to dampen enthusiasm for moving to warm spots. Texas, Florida and Arizona added the most population last year; Phoenix was the fastest-growing big city in the country.3 The same goes for Florida. A day before Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s west coast, The Washington Post prepared a map showing how many millions of people had moved to the areas in Ian’s path over the past half-century.
It's the heavy population growth that makes the losses from natural disasters so costly. It’s not just the expensive homes and boats along the water; its all the the infrastructure needed to support population growth — roads, retail centers, parking lots and such. That sort of development raises temperatures more than undeveloped land, further speeding the warming even as it eliminates natural buffers from nature’s power. The saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps that used to line the Florida coastline could absorb tidal surges, and regrow after devastating storms. Subdivisions are not similarly absorbent.4
It's ironic that Florida now finds itself desperate to draw help from federal tax revenues when part of the state’s appeal for retirees and wage-earners alike is the low tax bills there, since the state has no income tax. So if it’s taxpayers all over the country who will be paying to rebuild Florida, shouldn’t we have a voice in how that money is spent?
It’s politically and economically unrealistic to think that we can undo all the development along America’s coastlines, but it’s not sensible to spend tens of billions of dollars of public money to redevelop property where development shouldn’t have occurred in the first place. A program of regreening and rewilding the vulnerable lands along our coastlines is a decades-long initiative that is worth undertaking — and if it doesn’t begin now, in the aftermath of such a massive storm, when might it?
A New Deal for the land
The threat of more and more massive future disasters ought to provoke conversation about a more bold approach to recovery — perhaps more like what Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented for the devastated agricultural sector during the New Deal. We may not be able to attach strings to the aid Ron DeSantis demands right now, but this is the time for a hard look at how we allocate federal dollars that compensate for our unwise growth patterns.
There are first steps to deal with the crisis in the West in the just-enacted (and misleadingly named) Inflation Reduction Act. It includes $4 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation, which seems likely to use it for measures to incentivize conservation in the Colorado River basin — by, for example, paying farmers and ranchers to stop growing water-intensive crops and pushing cities to take aim at lawns.5
The lawns of dry cities are an obvious target, but the bigger issue is agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River. Large-scale farming operations in the West must be incentivized to grow crops that don’t require so much water. Here’s an example: If the cotton fields in Arizona were switched to growing wheat, 67 billion gallons of water a year could be saved. 6
At the same time, we might ask for help from the 90 percent of Americans who eat meat — count me happily in that group — in light of the fact that livestock production requires a lot of land and water. If we were to go without meat one day a week, on what we might call Meatless Monday for America, we could save an amount of water equal to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year. That would be disruptive to the beef industry, certainly, but it’s cheaper to help ranchers adjust to reduced demand than any imagined scheme to get more water from one side of the country to the other. Aqueducts, anybody? Unlikely.
Meanwhile, a program to encourage more small-scale and regionally appropriate agriculture, especially using organic techniques, could help revitalize small communities across the country that have experienced a population drain. Once-productive farmland now lies fallow because small-scale producers can’t compete with massive farming organizations that drain federal aid programs. Redirecting that money to the little guys could spark growth in the declining rural communities across the Midwest and the Northeast.
Are ideas such as these simply wishful thinking in a nation with such a badly damaged political system? These days, our federal government can’t even do its most basic work: This week marked the 25th straight year that Congress has failed to pass all of the appropriations bills that fund federal agencies by the Sept. 30 statutory deadline. How can we even consider the idea of altering our land use priorities on such a massive scale if we can’t even get Republicans and Democrats to agree on a federal budget?
At the risk of sounding like a management guru, I have to note that the surest path to failure is to assume that failure is likely. Big dreams can produce big gains, and that’s what we desperately need now.
We have been here before
Of course, we might have avoided the worst of these disasters if we had begun four decades back to address the behavior that has led to climate change. But while we can’t reverse our mistakes, we can more intelligently deal with their effects.
We have seen, after all, what happens when we ignore the reality of nature. The Dust Bowl years of the 1930s left millions of Americans impoverished. Just as the nation plunged into the Great Depression, the High Plains began to experience waves of drought. There, the government had encouraged farmers to plant without considering smart dry land farming methods, which left the topsoil eroded and vulnerable to the wind. Year after year, massive dust storms enveloped the prairies across a dozen states. In the spring of 1934, a two-day dust storm that began in South Dakota carried a massive amount of topsoil on continental winds eastward; it dropped 12 million tons of dirt on Chicago, and then, two days later, reached as far east as Washington and New York City. The dirty air lingered, and in the winter of 1934 and 1935, red snow fell in New England.7
The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by expanding the role of the federal government in soil conservation, agricultural education and land management. A new Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration, helped farmers in vulnerable places to resettle on other lands. Federal dollars encouraged smarter farming techniques that could save the soil.
Then, as now, the priority in recovery was to take care of those in need. But the next step then was what it should be now, too: to try to stop the crisis from continuing by changing the factors that had created it. How many disasters will we endure before we develop a smarter strategy to mitigate their effects? Now, in the aftermath of one of the most damaging natural disasters in American history, it would be tragic to miss the opportunity for a thoughtful response.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Smith, Ark. (Fort Smith Times Record, swtimes.com)
Killingly, Conn. (The Bulletin, norwichbulletin.com)
Galesburg, Ill. (Galesburg Register-Mail, galesburg.com)
Wayne, N.J. (Daily Record, northjersey.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Judge won’t order restoration of Confederate flag
For 19 years, a Confederate flag flew at a park in Fort Smith, along with the Stars and Stripes and flags of Spain and France. The flag of the confederacy was taken down in 2020, as America came to a new reckoning with racist symbols in public places. But the state legislature passed a historic monument act that seems to some to justify flying the flag again, and a local lawyer sued the City of Fort Smith to force it to show the flag, according to reporting in the Fort Smith Times Record by Robert Medley. The Arkansas History Commission last month appeared to side with the lawyer’s lawsuit, but this week a county judge ruled against it, saying he didn’t have the authority to order the flag back into public view. It seems unlikely to be the last word on whether the symbol of the insurrection against the United States will again fly in Arkansas.
School board limits employees’ social media use
At this week’s meeting of the school board in Killingly, sections of employee policies were read aloud that set limits on criticism of the school board or board policies by district employees, according to reporting in The Bulletin by John Penney. It’s not clear, Penney wrote, if there have been recent examples of, say, teachers criticizing the board or its policies. But the warning was clear: employees’ personal social media accounts could get them in trouble — or even lead to their firing — if the board determines that what they posted “interferes, disrupts or undermines the effective operation of the school district.” The board did not highlight during the meeting another portion of the employee policies that notes that school employees indeed have the right to speak out under the First Amendment — “in certain circumstances” — on matters of “public concern.”
Pipeline proposal worries farmers
Landowners in several states are getting a look at a proposal for a 1,300-mile Heartland Greenway Pipeline, which would carry liquified carbon dioxide away from some 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in five Midwestern states. Details of the pipeline plan were laid out in Gannett’s Illinois newspapers by Samuel Lisec, a reporter in Galesburg. A Texas-based company proposes to build a steel pipe from 6 to 24 inches in diameter that would would start in eastern South Dakota and travel southeast; it would branch into Nebraska and Minnesota, across Iowa, and end in a storage facility in Christian County, Illinois. There, millions of tons of CO2 would be permanently sequestered approximately 6,000 ft. underground. Farmers are worried that the pipeline — which could exercise eminent domain and take needed land — would pose a danger and lead to financial losses. The pipeline sponsors say it would create 1,900 permanent jobs, and 17,000 jobs during construction, and would pay more than $30 million a year in property taxes.
Parents pull their kids out of school sex-ed classes
Family life and sex education training are required in the public schools in 38 states, according to reporting by Philip DeVencentis in the Daily Record, but a 1980 New Jersey law allows parents to excuse their children from the training if it conflicts with their “sincerely held moral or religious beliefs.” In Wayne Township, a bedroom community of New York City, parents of about 15 percent of the children this year have pulled their kids out of the classes, DeVencentis reports. The lessons, which cover gender expression, pregnancy and puberty, among other topics, were approved by the Wayne school board last month as part of a revamp of the K-12 district’s curriculum in health and physical education. Because the issue of sex education has gained recent attention across the country as a Republican campaign topic, school officials released an online slideshow, which contains links to the exact lessons that will be taught in each grade.
What creates a legend?
A one-day trip to Manhattan — it’s less than three hours and a whole different life away from our Upstate home — offers an opportunity to recharge some aesthetic sensibilities and grow my cultural awareness. Three days earlier, I had spent glorious hours fly fishing on a gorgeous New England river; now I was amid an afternoon crowd at the Museum of Modern Art, absorbing the work of some of the most creative minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then I was taking in a play on Broadway. That variety is invigorating.
One of the striking realizations at the museum was how much we are influenced in our choices by others’ views. The crowds were most eager to see the more famous artists’ work — sometimes even taking selfies in front of familiar paintings. It’s as though the art itself becomes celebrity, and we somehow gain stature by being in its presence. Monet’s “Water Lillies” and van Gogh’s “Starry Night” draw attention; great work by lesser-known artists gets just a quick glance.
Posing alongside powerful or famous people — aside from being something I don’t think a journalist ought to do — has always struck me as a bit personally diminishing. Of course, none of the presidents of the United States that I’ve been around would care for a photo of us together, but I’m not a lesser person than the presidents; I’m just not as famous. Or perhaps that’s just a way of justifying one’s own place in the world.
I’m glad to be back where the streams run clear and there’s room to get around. But a brief trip to the city at the center of our nation’s cultural life is as invigorating as some time in the country is for urban dwellers. I’m glad we can share each.
Visitors flock to the work of Vincent van Gogh, but we’re less aware of great artists of our own time.
Thanks for reading, and for taking time to join me on the Upstate side of *our common ground, this America.