Out of Harm’s Way

The concept is a welcome antidote to the rebuild-at-any-cost approach

   Finally someone in authority, in this case, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is talking sense about rebuilding storm-damaged properties in New York City and on Long Island. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Gov. Cuomo outlined his idea that as much as $400 million of Hurricane Sandy federal aid be set aside for buying flood-zone houses made unlivable, knocking them down, and leaving the properties vacant. The concept is a welcome antidote to the rebuild-at-any-cost approach, and, if carried through, would save money — and lives.
    The measure outlined by the governor would involve paying full, pre-Sandy market value to the owners of affected properties, with a 10-percent incentive for those in highest-risk zones.
    Some 130 people died in the New York area during Sandy. Eliminating residences and some infrastructure in the most vulnerable areas could reduce the number of fatalities in future storms. Though the desire to return to wrecked houses may be strong, there are likely to be some homeowners for whom a cash offer would make sense. Public officials have an obligation to protect the public to the greatest degree possible; helping people get out of harm’s way is part of that responsibility.
    Then there is the question of cost. Long-term, the price of continually restoring roads or replacing sand becomes the nation’s taxpayers’ problem, along with other projects the federal flood insurance program agrees to pay for. People across the country subsidize the vacation houses of the rich in the Hamptons, and support businesses, such as hotels, whose local give-back in terms of verifiable dollars and community enhancement is questionable. Up to 98 percent of the East Coast’s oceanfront property, according to one study, is said to be in “absentee ownership,” that is, only marginally occupied or held as an investment. Should people in the heartland have to ante up to keep it this way? Mr. Cuomo and others say no.
    As to the environment, trying to hold the shoreline in place results in devastation in the form of lost ecosystems, as can be seen at East Hampton’s Georgica Beach and in many places on north and east-facing shorelines. Sea walls and the like in locations where erosion is ongoing inevitably result in the loss of natural beaches. Costly sand replenishment — as was recently approved by residents of a special tax district in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton and is under consideration in Montauk — is not necessarily sustainable over the long term without outside funding.
    Governor Cuomo has made it clear that state and local officials have to be smart about federal money, asking themselves — and the best available experts — what mitigation and protection really mean and for whom and in whose interest public money should be spent.