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Cross Country: Hurricane in the Hamptons?

by: Nicole Gelinas    13 July 2006

NEW YORK -- Hurricanes bring obvious hazards like wind and water, but one of the obstacles preventing sensible hurricane preparation is a moral hazard. The evidence can be found here on the eastern tip of New York state.

Long Islanders aren't prepared for hurricanes -- and they should be. True, Long Island isn't New Orleans. While it juts out right into the potential path of vicious Atlantic storms, chances are slim that a storm would deluge most of its 2.8 million residents with Katrina-style flooding, because the island's "spine" is mostly along high ground, according to meteorologist Mike Wiley, of the National Weather Service.

Even so, parts of Long Island do resemble the Mississippi coast, where nearly 400,000 residents saw their homes razed or damaged by last year's hurricane. Tens of thousands of eastern Long Islanders live in vulnerable coastal areas, where a major hurricane would trigger home-destroying storm surges. Even inland, such a storm -- a category 2 or 3, say -- would cause miles of wind damage, requiring billions of dollars in repairs and leaving many homes uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Sooner or later, a big storm hitting Long Island is inevitable. The current generation of Long Islanders, notes Mr. Wiley, has grown up in a placid weather cycle, thanks to cool ocean temperatures. But the oceans have been warming now for several years, fueling more intense storms. The category 3 hurricane that slammed into the island in 1938 preceded an earlier warming cycle; five storms, ranging from mild to moderate intensity, hit the island from the '50s through 1960. It's only a matter of time before one finds the path up the coast again -- and these days, due to erosion and building, the island now has fewer natural barriers, such as sand dunes, to shield it from the worst damage.

Given the island's history and geography, coastal dwellers have no excuse for lack of preparation. But unprepared they are. Fewer than half of the nearly 40,000 residents of the vulnerable city of Long Beach carry federal flood insurance, necessary to rebuild water-damaged homes after a storm. Middle-class Freeport, where 40,000 people live, has flood-insurance coverage of only 20%, while tony Southampton has a coverage rate of 16%, as this newspaper recently reported.

The East End boasts lots of multimillion-dollar second homes, and many coastal residents have the resources to repair and rebuild. But many don't: In coastal Long Beach, for instance, the average family earns a solidly middle-class $57,000, and the average home is worth under $300,000.

New York state insurance commissioner Howard Mills has ranged all over Long Island recently, explaining to such homeowners what they must do, including checking insurance policies and, above all, urging them to buy the (inexpensive) federal flood insurance. But "there's no indication that people are buying," he tells me. Part of the complacency is human nature: People simply don't think bad things will happen to them.

But there's another reason: "It's hard to convince [homeowners] that they need insurance when they see the government will bail them out." The federal flood insurance itself, offering people coverage that the private market refuses to support, already encourages people to live in vulnerable areas by insulating them from the full market cost of that choice. But now, seeing what happened with Katrina, people will figure -- correctly or incorrectly -- that if a disaster is big enough, the feds will give them money anyway.

Mr. Mills, at least, deserves kudos for trying to emphasize that people are still responsible for themselves. And he also deserves credit for not calling for even more government intervention in the insurance markets, as some major insurers, citing heavily concentrated risk, jack up prices or pull back from offering even wind coverage on parts of Long Island.

In particular, Mr. Mills isn't advocating that New York follow Florida's example and offer vulnerable coastal residents windstorm insurance, paid for by the state, to cushion them from the risk-based insurance premiums private insurers demand. It's vital that New York avoid Florida's mistake: The latter's state insurance fund, after a decade's worth of hard storms, faced a $1.7 billion deficit this year, which it papered over with debt financing and an insurance levy that affects all homeowners, even those who live inland.

Worse, state-subsidized insurance has only encouraged heavy development along Florida's three vulnerable coastlines -- development the free market would not support. And now, when Florida's insurance program tries minimally at this late date to protect taxpayers by making sensible changes, including its recent decision to stop covering builders' risk on new construction in the hardest hit areas, it meets a severe political backlash.

But in New York, Mr. Mills simply notes that "the free market has dealt with the risk of catastrophe" in the state "very well" and that insurers, since they require homeowners to take elementary steps to protect their property, may actually reduce potential storm damage.

Of course, the federal flood insurance badly needs reform. But until it's fixed, vulnerable Long Islanders should buy it and provide some protection for themselves.

Ms. Gelinas is a contributing editor to City Journal, from whose forthcoming issue this was adapted.