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From Red Hook to SoCal, Sprawl Puts People at Risk

Floodwaters in Red Hook in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Oct. 30,

Photograph by Robert Stolarik/The New York Times via Redux

Floodwaters in Red Hook in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Oct. 30, 2012.

Before you even reach it, you can hear the main drag of Brooklyn’s hard-hit Red Hook neighborhood pulsing in the distance. A steady thump of generators powering water pumps rings up and down the main stretch of Van Brunt Street. Hoses snake out of basements, spewing water into gutters. Residents haul water-logged mattresses, soaked boxes of paper, and garbage bags stuffed full to the curb. Pairs of wet shoes perch outside to dry, groups of people in rain boots squeegee floors, and neighbors check in with each other. “We have power,” one woman yells to another across the street. “Great. But we’re not going to have heat or hot water,” the other replies.

Red Hook is at once one of New York City’s oldest neighborhoods and newest hot spots. As the city grew and real estate prices kept climbing, city residents priced out of other neighborhoods were drawn to Red Hook by its fishing village charm and welcoming artistic community. Red Hook’s two census tracts that don’t including a housing project in the neighborhood for decades saw their population climb more than 11 percent from 2000 to 2010. Manhattan’s Tribeca and Brooklyn’s Dumbo are other former industrial areas that have turned residential in recent decades. All these neighborhoods have something else in common: They are close to the water, bringing more risk of storm surges. ”In general, an industrial [structure] tends to be better built but also tends to be more dangerously sited, because it is often located in flood zones,” says Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer for the insurance risk modeler Risk Management Solutions.

Something similar has been happening on the West Coast. In Southern California, suburbs have continued to sprawl out to wilder areas that have historically been in fire paths. In 2007, wildfires destroyed thousands of homes in one fell swoop. ”The vast majority of destroyed houses burned as a direct result of choices made by home builders, homeowners, politicians, and planners about where to put new development,” Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote at the time.

Living by the ocean or up in the mountains has its perks, of course. “The question is, are people fully comprehending the trade-offs,” says Muir-Wood. He says the way the federal flood insurance program is run doesn’t properly convey the risks to homeowners. The program caps what insurers can charge and has just a “coarse” map that only roughly delineates flood zones, when in reality there are small differences from block to block, even structure to structure, that can predict the chance of damage more accurately.

Because the government has bailed out the federal insurance program in the past, taxpayers end up footing the bill for the extra risk. ”If you are helping poor people living in New Orleans, that is one thing, but to cross-subsidize people who want to live on the beachfront seems a little perverse,” says Muir-Wood.


Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @kyweise.

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