Most of the Northwest’s coast is equipped with early warning systems for tsunamis. (See, for example, this article from the Newport (Oregon) News-Times.) But that doesn’t make us immune from giant earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. The 1964 Alaska earthquake was actually bigger on the Richter scale than the recent Indonesian temblor, and it set off a giant wave that swept a few Oregonians and Washingtonians to their deaths. A similar-scale quake and wave with more-local origins likely occurred around 1700, according to a good article in the Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

Flooding rivers pose a similar threat. They’re typically not as sudden as tsunamis, but far more northwesterners are exposed to them. And unlike tsunamis, river flooding is an annual occurrence, with massive floods coming once or twice in a lifetime. (As climate changes, the severity of flooding may be accelerating.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And though we have more systems in place, preparedness in the form of disaster kits, escape routes, and early-warning sirens is still a pale imitation of true preparedness for high waters.

True preparedness means not building in flood plains and just behind the dunes: it means not needing an evacuation plan. And one of the biggest obstacles to true preparedness, unfortunately, is part of the U.S. federal government’s approach to floods.

The National Flood Insurance Program, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides subsidized reimbursement for property owners who build in harms way and then suffer the predictable consequences. Property owners do pay premiums to receive the insurance, but it’s run and subsidized by the government because no private insurer would underwrite the risk. Here’s a case where the market definitely knows best.

As Washington’s Skagit Valley Herald points out (as part of a series of articles on the Skagit River), the federal government paid nearly $1 million after the October 2003 floods just to the residents of one tiny Skagit River community. Without federal flood insurance, banks probably would not finance any real-estate transactions in flood plains, so very little would get built. Instead, with Uncle Sam underwriting the flood risk, homes get flooded and rebuilt repeatedly.

In British Columbia, flood-related aid from provincial and federal governments came to Can$13 million in the 1990s, according to the Fraser Basin Council (large pdf). That’s a pittance compared to the U.S. program. Yet, as the council notes, "both federal and provincial financial assistance programs for flood mitigation and prevention have ‘sunsetted,’ leaving local governments on their own for major capital costs such as repairs and rehabilitation of flood protection works.” That’s good thinking — thinking the U.S. government should emulate.

River flooding is a predictable hazard; those who ignore the risk should bear the cost to repair their own buildings. This point is broader than just flood insurance. It also applies to forest fires, and construction on bluffs and other steep slopes. And to tsunamis. In all these cases, development ought to pay its own way. As Northwest Environment Watch argued in This Place on Earth 2001, when development has to pay its own full costs, sensitive ecosystems stay intact, lives get saved, taxpayers don’t get gouged, and the economy is spared unnecessary burdens.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.