Does the public have a responsibility to help people rebuild flood-damaged homes?

FEMA has been inspecting flood-damaged homes in Duluth and other parts of northeast Minnesota. Homeowners are hoping that President Obama will declare the region a disaster area and open the way to federal assistance in rebuilding. Today’s Question: Does the public have a responsibility to help people rebuild flood-damaged homes?

  • CLee

    For the strength and stability of our society it benefits us to make sure an area does not become blighted. It is also the humane and honorable reaction to a disaster. For those reasons, I think we should help. I also think an individual has a responsibility to protect themselves from known dangers.

    To achieve something of a balance, I think it might be a good idea to have FEMA help the first time a disaster occurs on a property. After that, the property owner is responsible for making sure they have appropriate insurance or other defenses against whatever disaster is likely to hit them. For example, people who live on the Gulf Coast know very well that they are in hurricane country. They should purchase insurance against hurricane damage and also build houses that can withstand high winds and water damage. People who live in fire areas should make sure their houses are adequately fortified against fire by building with non-flammable materials and making sure the landscape around the house is fire resistant. It goes on.

    Once a property has received disaster aid for a particular thing, then anyone who owns that property forever after is notified of the potential danger and won’t be covered by FEMA money. This will only work if there are strong building codes in place to help property owners build suitable structures for their area. California has done a great job of this with earth quake building codes. When a big quake hits California there is relatively little damage compared to a similar size one in other areas of the world.

    We can protect ourselves to minimize the heartache and financial damage of natural disasters. It takes planning and cooperation though. Both things seem to be lacking in our society today.

  • reggie

    Provide food, shelter and assistance in the aftermath of a natural disaster… absolutely. Provide public funds to quickly rebuild public infrastructure… absolutely. Expend public funds on safety issues (gas lines, water lines, sewer lines, etc.)… absolutely.

    Spend public funds to restore private property, residential or commercial… absolutely not.

  • Dee

    I see the damage caused by the flood every day. Roads have washed out taking private property, or parts of it, along with them. Where do you draw the line between public and private restoration? I think, perhaps, that FEMA relief dollars will need to be determined and allocated on a case-by-case basis.

  • Ann

    In the 1970’s, Rapid City had a flood that killed many people. The people were not allowed to rebuild in the flood plain area. It was made into a park. I read years ago that people in some parts of the country, South Carolina for example, expect tax payers to keep rebuilding in flood prone areas. The National Geographic magazine writer implied that thiis didn’t make sense.It seems that the same questions like this are pondered year after year.

  • Jim G

    What makes a community cohesive is the ability and willingness to help others hit by disaster: whether man-made, like the shooting in Aurora, or natural, as in Duluth’s massive flooding. If we don’t help out when others need help, we should have no expectation that others will help in our time of need. We in all probability will need some form of assistance at some time in our lives. We should be a “Mensch”, and set a good example with generous relief.

    I also agree with CLee’s post today about mitigating recurring FEMA claims. We shouldn’t bailout those who are building in previously proven vulnerable areas with insufficient enforcement of strict building codes. There are ways to be of assistance without burdening the rest of the nation.

  • James

    Good question.

    The damage in Duluth seems to have resulted from a “legitimately unpredictable act of God.” The residents would not really have been expected to have insurance, and are not living there despite warnings to not do so, so there is a strong argument that they, if anyone, should be helped.

    Unfortunately, FEMA disaster relief, like all government programs, distorts markets.

    If free insurance from the federal govenrment didn’t exist, many of us would buy (probably at very low cost) insurance for all of the very low likelihood, but high cost disasters, like this one.

    I agree with an earlier poster, that if the situations where the government was willing to jump in was better defined up front, we would adjust our behaviors in response and reduce the cost for everyone.

  • GregX

    if the flood that took their property is like to happen again – then no federal funding to re-build on the same spot, even if neighbors homes are still there. At most – provide money to the property owner for some level of compensation and allow them to declare a form of bankruptcy that is cleared from their record in 2 years. Banks that agreed to build homes in flood prone areas – should take part of the hit and part of the fedreal money.

  • DMox

    It’s not a responsibility, it’s an obligation. It’s the same obligation we have to anyone in our community who is a victim of tragedy. If the Federal, state or local governments want to opt out of helping these people, then they should disallow land in flood zones to be granted building permits.

    If your neighbor builds a house in the woods, and it burns down, do you turn your back on him for building in an area that could catch fire?

  • matt

    I agree with James, “But for” govt intervention homeowners would have flood insurance. I doubt many lenders would offer home loans without it even in the middle of AZ. Each time govt steps in and covers this the moral hazard continues to grow.

    Everyone can buy it but since the market is skewed by govt bailouts the price is higher than in need be – about $300/year. Stop bailing people out and the number of purchasers will go up and the rates come down.

  • James

    Matt: Maybe we need a flood insurance mandate. 🙂

  • Rich in Duluth

    Yes, but as others have said, with revised building codes, regulations to require insurance (yes, a mandate), and in some cases buying people out and not allowing them to rebuild in certain areas.

    People should also be warned, when they are looking to purchase a home or to build, that they are within a flood plain. It’s not always obvious, when a large area, with many homes, is within a flood plain. I drove along a street in the Kenwood area of Duluth, where a half dozen nice homes were flooded with several feet of water. It was obvious to me, working in civil engineering, that this was a low area near a waterway and subject to flooding. I wouldn’t have built or bought a home there.

    I think that a number of washouts were due to old, inadequate public infrastructure. I know of one road washout, where a larger storm sewer emptied into a smaller one. Much of the underground infrastructure, here in Duluth, is a hundred years old and should be upgraded. It was designed when there was much less pavement. More pavement means higher runoff rates and more volume of water entering storm sewer structures, which can overwhelm and undermine the storm system.

    All of us, through government, have the responsibility to rebuild as appropriate, improve regulations and have an ongoing program to upgrade infrastructure.

  • John

    No, it is not the responsibility of the government to take care of people.

    If individuals feel the desire to donate to help others they can. There are many church groups and non-profit groups that can and do help in these situations.

  • georges

    And here we see, once again, the danger, and false hope, of institutionalizing human emotions.

    Additionally, we are reminded of the fact that “insurance”, either provided by quasi-private companies or by the Leviathan Entitlement Government of Infinite Teats (LEGIT), is the perfect modern embodiment of the old Karl Marx, et al, rallying cry, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

    And just as big a failure as Marx and his “reforms”.

  • matt

    @Rich in Duluth,

    It has amazed me in my work on a City Council and a School Board that the need for infrastucture upgrades was never ending. If we approved X the amount needed was 1.3X, etc. Then I compare that to infrastructure needs in the private sector and it seems that the targets are always hit (assuming it is a solvent company…also assume solvent cities). In my opinion the disparity between govt spending on infrastructure and “needs” is:

    1. poor cost benefit analysis of politicians on which projects to fund (parks get built when sewers should be replaced)

    2. Oversizing projects based on expectations of growth – dollars for oversizing diverted away from maintenance, more critical upgrades.

    3. Inconsistent leadership priorities – focus on infrastructure for 2 years and then switch to low tax rates.

    (And then blame the engineers when it breaks down)

    Would this be what you see in Duluth or in general?

  • Jim

    The question is poorly posed.

    We have a system for helping out people injured (in various ways) in natural disasters. If the Duluth floods qualify for those benefits, then yes. If they do not, then no.

    Flooding is somewhat unique in that, for the most part, we know where they will occur and how often and how severe. That’s why it’s expensive (or impossible) to buy flood insurance on some places. So, for places where floods are, essentially, a certainty, in some respects those locations should be: Build at your own risk.

    For instance, on the Gulf and Atlantic barrier islands, susceptible to hurricanes, should we be providing an incentive (FEMA rescue when the hurricane wipes out the development) for building in such a place? I would vote no on that.

  • Steve the Cynic

    There are two mistakes to avoid. One is failing to help when it’s really needed. The other is to enable the continuation of the behavior that led to the problem in the first place. I have more sympathy for the victims of flooding in Duluth (a city built on a hill, who would guess it would flood?) than for folks with beach houses in hurricane zones.

    Oh, and for all you “government is always bad” folks, the reason there’s federal flood insurance is that the free market historically hasn’t been willing to provide it. You could argue then that it shouldn’t exist, but you can’t credibly say it would be cheaper if the government kept its nose out.

  • Matt


    The market always has and always will provide flood insurance. The reason the govt got involved is that people did not like the prices. If you live in a flood zone, you almost certainly will get flooded so your premium is 100% of your exposure. This is how people learn to not live in a flood zone, the market informs them of costs prior to them even happening. People in Grand Forks and New Orleans were not happy and politiced for a subsidy. I do not live in a flood plain but now I have to pay additional taxes to subsidize those that do.

    As for it being cheaper if govt were not involved, Econ theory says yes it would. We will never know until it happens but this is no hard question.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Theory is nice, matt, but reality is messy. Here’s roughly how it played out in reality: Settlers established communities in nice-seeming locations without knowing flood histories. Many decades later there’s a devastating flood. Being a compassionate people, the nation comes to their aid and helps them rebuild. The second time there’s a flood, the nation realizes it’s not smart to rebuild, but people are loath to leave their cherished communities, and they can’t be blamed for decisions made before they were born. The compromise is to buy out flooded properties and turn them into parks, so people can relocate to higher ground, stop building in flood zones in the future, build flood control structures, and then try to have people in risky locations take more responsibility. Unfortunately, the insurance industry by and large doesn’t see much profit in flood insurance, because the risk is so high, so the government gets into the flood insurance business, with the idea that eventually everyone will be living on higher ground or behind adequate dikes.

    In hindsight, it would have been smarter to refrain from being so compassionate after the first flood, and the pioneers should have studied the evidence of prior floods (or maybe ask the native peoples they were dispossessing, but that would be awkward). What was done was far from ideal by any measure, but I’d rather be part of a people that errs by being too compassionate than by being too cold hearted.

  • 30klbsofbananas

    “Homeowners are hoping that President Obama will declare the region a disaster area and open the way to federal assistance in rebuilding.”

    Perhaps they shouldn’t get their hopes too high. After all, Obama refused to declare a disaster last year for the tornado in the near northside hood, leaving those folks without enough free money.

    And maybe the request should be put off for awhile. Obama is busy right now running his mouth about how sorry he is that some nutcase went beserk in a movie theater in the dark, and how we are better than that, and how life is about more than pandering for votes, and blah, and blah, and blah.

  • Steve the Cynic

    So, we’re not better than that?

  • Carmen Cents

    Does the public have a responsibility to help people rebuild flood-damaged homes?

    Yes, of course, and perhaps with better prep for future wet and warm times. I keep seeing hemp/cannabis as a solution, from revenue and products built and crops grown to deal with the changes coming from climate change. People as a whole can be prosperous, think ahead and help in areas of disaster and tragedy with compassionate assistance of each other. Greed has lead the dominator culture to make nature illegal and “acts of God” to legitimate bail-outs for all but those who really need help.

    Hemp is a Trillion dollar crop (read: “New Billion Dollar Crop” Popular Mechanics, 1938 “Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody “hurds” remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”). Most of the public have been brain washed (look at Michele Bachmann). Watch The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. Time to consider seven generations past and future. Pot can even fix potholes, one of Minnesota’s banes. Hemp tubes and bladders to channel reserve and irrigate from regular flooding… There’s so much that can be done with the courage/compassion of heart and creativity/ingenuity of mind of Minnesotans to help each other and the world.

    Don’t let the day pass by without considering peace and prosperity for all.

    “Why use the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?”

    Henry Ford

    “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!”

    George Washington

    “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.”

    Thomas Jefferson

  • georges

    While you are out there fixing the Minnesota potholes with hemp, be sure not to be a pothead.

    You will forget all about fixing the potholes…

    …..and spend all your time pondering peace and prosperity for all. And why donuts taste so fantastic when whacking weed.

  • georges

    I see the Democrats wasted no time trying to make political gold out of the Colorado movie theater killings.

    The Democrats (falsely) claimed the murderer was a Tea Party member.

    That’s sucking at the muck on the bottom of the barrel. A new low, even for the Democrats.

  • Karen

    Steve’s quite off in calling that jackoffamofo/georgettes an anarchist. Anarchists don’t need such a duped-stooge such as that (except to get clue and find their heart).

    May the people of Duluth and every tragically visited area be comforted and cared for swiftly and compassionately.

    May the idiots, greed-stricken and the hateful find themselves bothered by a discomfort that can only be eased through compassionate action and kind considerate thoughts and words.

  • georges

    This just in from BBC News:

    Canadian scientists killed a lake. On purpose. Intentionally. They just went out to a lake a little ways north of the Minnesota border and put car battery acid in the water until everything died.

    How cruel.

    ALERT: The White House has approved this BBC News report for consumption by ordinary Democrats, as no Lefty Lib hero was shown to be what he really is. Apparently, none of the scientists involved in the deliberate execution of the pristine lake were named Mandela, Tubman, King, Tiger Woods or Dennis Rodman.

    Also, the BBC News reports that the Canadians laughed when asked about the Keystone Pipeline being denied by Barack Obama. The Canadians put it:

    “No skin off our noses, eh? We’ll just build a pipeline across the mountains to the ocean and squirt the oil into China. The Chinese will always buy our oil. They don’t have an Obama around their necks, dragging them down. Eh?”

    ALERT: The White House has denied approval of this BBC News report for consumption by ordinary Democrats, as it is derogatory to America’s Greatest Hero.

  • Debbie

    “Unfortunately, we are finding the bureaucratic inefficiencies and red tape have a tendency to slow the efforts of individuals and communities working to rebuild.”

    – Bobby Jindal

  • Steve the Cynic

    More molotov crock tales from the lunatic fringe…..

    I didn’t call georges/jockamo an anarchist until he called himself that, Karen. The trouble is, high-minded, truly idealistic advocates of principled anarchism have trouble taking their movement anywhere without such boorish yahoos hitching a ride on their wagon and making mischief, which provides all the evidence most folks need that government really is necessary. (Such self-proclaimed anarchists were the stereotypical terrorists of a century ago. It was such a one who assassinated President McKinley.) When principled anarchists can figure out how to keep the unruly and the lawless from rallying to their cause, they might get some traction.

  • Steve the Cynic

    When the bureaucracy is slow to do what we want it to do, we attribute it to red tape. When we’re worried that it might too quickly do what we don’t want it to do, we’re glad there’s accountability.

  • georges


    There he is……..Steve the Zimm…

    My little follower, stalking these barren streets, always ready with his hand under his jacket, quick to fire recklessly at his superiors.

    Steve the Zimm…

    My little ankle-breeze, always ready to provide a cooling effect on my semi-hot feet, from behind, always behind, the traditional home of the Zimm…

    Steve the Zimm…..

    Standing his ground…or, rather, trying to regain his ground, his self-respect, his place in his own mind, all of which was forever lost on the day I first graced these pages…..

    The Zimm….

    Amusing us all by his staunch idea that he can handle my 105 MPH fastball with his lil ol yellow plastic wiffle-ball bat.


  • Steve the Cynic

    You flatter yourself, georges/jockamo. Probably because no one else will. Your behavior suggests a need to repeat kindergarten.

  • jockamo

    I hear this fellow Barack Obama saying repeatedly that Mitt Romney is a felon….He’s a Felon…He committed a felony……Romney is a Felonious so-and-so…..

    Well, if Obama has proof that Romney committed a felony, he has the DUTY to run right down to the local U.S. Attorney’s office and present his evidence to the proper authorities.

    Oh, that’s right, Obama is our top employee, and as such runs the Justice Dept.

    Therefore, he is required to instruct his Attorney General, that bastion of felonious behavior and immorality, Eric Holder, to commence criminal proceedings against the one he has proof of felony against, Mitt Romney.

    But, lets not hold our breath. Obama is not real big on doing his sworn duties.

  • jockamo

    The Zimm…..

    Nothing to do….Except follow me around…..

    And capitulate…..over and over and over……forever.


  • Steve the Cynic

    Like I said. Kindergarten.

  • Anon

    @ Steve, I appreciate the thoughtfulness you bring to these questions. You have insight, humor, reason and kindness. I learn something every time I read the answers to Today’s Question, especially from your answers.

    @georges/jockamo I appreciate the opportunity you give me to develop tolerance, indifference and equanimity to your buffoonery and those that are unwise and cruel. I learn to remember to feel compassion for your need for love and acceptance.

    May you both (and all who read and answer these Qs) be blessed with happiness, comfort, joy and peace.

    Be blissful sometime now.

  • Jenny Pulczinski

    No the public doesn’t have responsibility to repair or replace flood damaged homes. We have a moral obligation to help people who need help from unprecedented disasters, like Duluth, but am I responsible to repair your home if you choose to build in an unsuitable location (such as the Oxbow in Fargo/Moorhead)? No, you chose to build in a low-lying or flood prone area and you should be responsible. That said, I think it is the right thing to do to help Duluth residents. That was unprecedented, but, unfortunately, with the more severe weather pattern that appears to be the norm for now, it will probably happen again, there or elsewhere. The unprecedented seems to be the new norm, and we don’t have enough money or resources to do the morally right thing every time……

  • jockamo

    Ernie Els has won the British Open for the 2nd time. Way to go, Ernie.

    But, perhaps, instead of playing golf, Mr. Els would have done better to have managed South Africa for the last 18 years, seeing that the black African Tribal Leaders in Soweto are so disgusted with Mandela and his tribe, who don’t give the Soweto folks electricity, or even water.

    According to the BBC, that is. And, the BBC is the premier news organization in the whole wide World. If we are going to believe any “news”, we must believe the BBC news.

    Els grew up a long 5 iron shot from Soweto, and still maintains a home there.

    Better, the black African Tribal leaders say, to have a good, decent Afrikaner in control of the Diamonds & Gold, than a tribal enemy demi-god made in America.

  • georges

    Obama has decided that the people in the Duluth area do not need any help.

    There ya go, Iron Rangers. Your Democrat boy thinks a flooded and ruined home in New Orleans is important, but a flooded and ruined home on the Range is not important.

    Guess he figures he already has your votes locked up.