“You don’t build houses on a freight train, so why build houses on a floodplain or on a beach that regularly gets hit by hurricanes?” asked Brett Hulsey of Sierra Club’s midwest office the very same hour that Hurrican Floyd hit North Carolina.

The Presidential Disaster Declarations Map has been made available by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in poster form, in an effort to educate the US public on the frequency and severity of natural disasters.

The map clearly shows that disasters most frequently strike the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, areas adjacent to major rivers in the centre of the country and seismic zones on the West coast.

FEMA is charged with the implementation of the US National Mitigation Strategy, an ongoing effort to lessen the impact of natural disasters. Part of the strategy is Project Impact, that involves working closely with high-risk communities to reduce risk and raise awareness. Other schemes, including the National Flood Insurance Program, operate by restricting development.

“There are three principles to natural disaster mitigation,” Hulsey told edie. “First, don’t build in high hazard areas. Second, use federal money to move people out of high hazard areas. For instance, 11,000 households on the Mississippi have been relocated. Third, protect the natural habitats that protect us.”

Habitats that act as sponges or buffers from floods and hurricanes include:

  • wetlands located relatively high up on a river
  • floodplains located lower down a river’s course
  • coastal marshes
  • coastal islands

Of particular concern to those officials and campaigners who are attempting to reduce flooding risk is the Nationwide 26 rider attached to the House Appropriations Bill. “It would allow developers to destroy up to three acres of wetlands without having to inform anyone or undertake an impact study,” says Hulsey. In the past, developers were able to destroy up to 10 wetland acres without special permission, then it was reduced to three acres (see related story ). An attempt to phase out the three acres allowance is now threatened by the Nationwide 26 rider.

Between 1995 and 1998, US taxes subsidised the Federal Flood Insurance Program to the amount of $800 million. And over the last 25 years the US has spent $140 billion on recovering from or preparing for natural disasters.

“People are starting to put development and flooding together,” says Hulsey, “but developers and Congress aren’t getting it.”

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