WASHINGTON – Americans depend on government to protect them from disasters. But after the toll taken by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, some policymakers ask whether government hasn’t instead enticed people into living, working and playing in dangerous places.

The problem isn’t limited to hurricane-battered coastal areas, they say. Across the nation, people build homes and businesses near forests, riverbanks and other high-risk locales, largely because federal agencies provide infrastructure and financial help.

While in the 1800s government gave settlers land to encourage development, modern-day incentives include wildfire-prevention, flood-control and beach-improvement projects. Financial bonuses such as subsidized flood insurance and tax deductions also lure people into harm’s way.

“In a sense, we are giving people a false sense of security that we can protect them,” said Mike Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest Service during the Clinton administration. “The reality is that these natural forces are much bigger than we are.”

The unintended result is a landscape of disasters waiting to happen: million-dollar bungalows on hurricane-battered Atlantic beachfronts, malls and suburbs in Midwestern floodplains and resort homes built at the edge of tinder-dry forests throughout the West.

With the federal contribution to recovery from Katrina estimated at $100 billion or more, some in Congress are calling for new scrutiny of federal policies that can feed a cycle of development, devastation and reconstruction.

“It’s amazing how it has suddenly dawned on people that we can’t keep doing things the same way,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “I have found that this has moved up on the radar screen for a wide range of people.”

Indeed, New Orleans residents knew long before Katrina hit that they lived in a risky place. But they also had put their faith in probabilities: A storm big enough to breach the lowest levees protecting the city would occur only once in 200 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had calculated.

If anything, Katrina proved that odds can be deceiving, said Don Sweeney, a retired corps economist. Many people fail to realize that a once-in-200-year storm is as likely to happen in the first year as in the 200th, he said.

Nevertheless, Sweeney and other critics said, growing numbers of people and businesses choose to play the odds – and do so with the tacit encouragement of federal, state and local governments.

A glaring example is cropping up in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Sweeney said. After floods in 1993, the corps began upgrading surrounding levees. The town followed with new water and sewer lines, which in turn allowed for construction of a strip mall.

Another flood will come, he said. The only question is when.

“It’s a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around what these probability numbers mean,” said Sweeney, now a professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis. “If you wait long enough, you are certain to have a disaster.”

The National Flood Insurance Program has been a perennial target for criticism because until last year, it allowed owners to file unlimited numbers of claims for recurring damage on the same property. Many rebuild bigger and better than before.

“It has made it safe to build in high-risk areas, and it has increased the intensification of building at the coast,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group in Washington.

An analysis of flood-insurance coverage by Newhouse News Service supports Ellis’ claim. The average amount of coverage per policy nearly doubled in constant dollars between 1978 and 2002, with coastal states such as North Carolina and Florida leading the way, the analysis found.

Meanwhile, other incentives have encouraged people to build homes and businesses where they chance wildfires and droughts. Consider:

– The 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act authorizes $760 million a year to thin fire-prone forests, with at least half going to protect residential areas. But without strict local planning ordinances, the spending will encourage further suburban sprawl, critics said.

“It’s an ever-expanding circle,” said Roger Kennedy, a former director of the National Park Service who is writing a book about government subsidies and their effect on development. “Until we focus on making the existing settlements safe and cease subsidizing extension into danger, we will not be saving people’s lives.”

– Crop subsidies pose an indirect threat to growing communities in arid regions because they encourage farmers to irrigate with water pumped from underground aquifers, said Don Wilhite, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska. The result is a lower water table that jeopardizes all users.

“All of a sudden, streams become intermittent, reservoirs don’t fill,” Wilhite said. “People are starting to figure this out.”

– Income tax laws also encourage risky development, said Ellis of the taxpayer group. Homeowners can deduct mortgage interest on second homes, often built near coastlines, forests, mountains and other vulnerable places.


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