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The trillion-dollar question facing disaster-prone communities: rebuild or retreat

15th January 2019
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The New York Times carried a fascinating article last month about the dilemma facing those living in disaster-prone zones.

T he paper raised the question of whether communities devastated time and time again by hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and tornadoes should rebuild or retreat.

According to an interesting piece in Popular Science last year, residential buildings in disaster-prone areas are typically rebuilt larger. Satellite data of five hurricane-prone places - Mantoloking, New Jersey; Hatteras and Frisco, North Carolina; Santa Rosa Island, Florida; Dauphin Island, Alabama; and Bolivar, Texas – appeared to show that smaller homes were replaced with larger ones. The study by the University of Southampton found that rebuilds were “between 19 and 50 percent larger than the original structure” after the storm.

That sounds like good news for residents, but experts warned that such redevelopment could pose “moral hazards” for taxpayers. In effect, every taxpayer across the States are inadvertently “supporting development in risky places”.

E xperts also raised their concerns that disasters are displacing poor and middle-class homeowners and enabling property developers to cash-in by buying lots at low prices. The developers can then build mansions and other prize real estate for the wealthy from the ruins.

There’s also the danger that vulnerable immigrants will play a major role in completing hazardous, redevelopment work. This is a common pattern after natural disasters as subcontractors employ untrained, cheap labour forces to handle dangerous material. America’s High County News cites one example: “A job as innocuous as removing furniture from a damaged house or ripping out drywall, for example, might expose a worker to asbestos and mold, toxins that can lead to long-term health effects”. Let’s not forget the $3 billion cleanup of the California wildfires, either. This will entail removing felled trees and large pieces of debris to containing hazardous chemicals like pesticides and paint solvents.

So do communities in disaster-prone communities rebuild or retreat? It’s a question that will only become more urgent as climate change continues to cause extreme weather.