The Fire Next Time

November 09, 1993

Give us the strength as we face the paperwork, the phone calls and the inconveniences of starting over again.

-- Prayer by Rev. Anne Broyles of the Malibu United Methodist Church.

Residents of the Santa Monica Mountains area that was devastated by wildfires last week are already beginning to complain about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but in fact all that paperwork is necessary. When the government starts giving people money or lending it to them at below-market rates, a lot of bureaucratic "i"s have to be dotted and "t"s crossed. Taxpayers, whose money it is, expect as much.

FEMA has a bad reputation, yet early reports from Southern California suggest it has been performing better than it did after the Midwestern floods of last spring and a whole lot better than it did after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Many persons whose homes burned to the ground got financial assistance on the spot to help them pay for temporary housing and other needs. Many were getting cash or the assurance of cash to make up for shortfalls in their fire insurance.

The Santa Monica bill to the federal government is not yet in. Though substantial, it will be small compared to the price taxpayers had to pay after the Mississippi overflow or Andrew's sustained 145-miles-per-hour winds. The principal reason river floods and coastal tidal surges associated with hurricanes are so costly is highlighted by the California fires. People build -- and rebuild -- homes in inappropriate places. They do so in part because they are subsidized when there are losses. In addition to cheap loans and grants there is federal flood insurance, which allows development in areas that everyone knows will have repeat disasters.

By one recent estimate, two percent of flood insurance policies account for 53 percent of the claims. Yet their rates remain ridiculously low -- because American taxpayers are obligated to pick up the tab for excess losses. (This is something Congress can and should change.) The homes in the fire-prone mountains and canyons of Southern California are somewhat similarly subsidized by state law requiring private insurers to provide below-market protection.

The best answer to the prayers of Malibu residents is: If you must start over, adopt new zoning laws, construction codes and siting and landscaping requirements. Those could lessen the dangers to them and the cost to everyone else when fire rages through the area next time, as it surely will.

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