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Disaster mitigation conversation needs to happen

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Talk is cheap. But sometimes, talk can prevent something very expensive from happening. That's why U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta's call for a national debate of natural disaster policy is more than welcome.

The Pennsylvania Republican chairs the House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. He called for opening that debate late last month as his panel listened to witnesses discuss the cost of federal disaster relief and the importance of mitigation.

Trying to minimize the effect of disasters before they occur would seem to be obvious. After all, every major disaster and all too many smaller ones result in considerable outlays of taxpayer money. Such common-sense strategies as drafting and enforcing effective building codes or, better yet, not building or rebuilding in areas that have suffered repeated catastrophes such as floods or hurricanes should be no-brainers, right?

The truth is a bit more complicated. Human nature itself helps increase the costs of natural catastrophes.

For example, more than 30 years ago, the federal government actually encouraged development on hurricane-exposed barrier islands through various subsidies. It was kind of Robin Hood in reverse: The subsidies came out of the pockets of taxpayers across the country — including some taxpayers who no doubt had never seen an ocean other than in the movies or on TV — and indirectly lined the pockets of people who could afford to build on beachfront property. Ultimately, Con-gress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982.

The philosophy behind the act is simple: You can build what you want, but don't expect any taxpayer subsidies. But of course, who wouldn't take a subsidy, either direct or indirect, if it's there for the taking?

And even classic disaster aid can become a subsidy. If the government encourages building in areas likely to suffer repeated catastrophes through below-market cost flood insurance, people will build there. Efforts to reform the National Flood Insurance Program by putting it on an actuarially sound basis have run into political storms. As a result, the NFIP continues to fall deeper into debt.

Federal disaster outlays aren't cheap. As Francis X. McCarthy, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said in testimony submitted to the subcommittee, there have been 15 events that generated more than $500 million in aid since 1996.

This can't go on forever as government deficits mount. Careful scrutiny of subsidies, strategies to encourage mitigation and situations under which the private insurance market can replace public funds all need to be part of the debate Rep. Barletta wants.

It's a debate that won't be settled easily or quickly, which is all the more reason it should be joined without delay.