Knuckling under to the floodgate

Bill Maxwell, a Stockton resident, lives along Smith Canal, which Uncle Sam says must have a floodgate at residents’ expense, unless residents want to pay really high flood insurance. Maxwell sent out an e-mail blast explaining why he will reluctantly vote for a floodgate assessment:

“Yes, I will hold my nose and vote in favor of the Smith Canal Assessment.  Even though I know this multi-million dollar boondoggle’s sole purpose is to appease FEMA and keep thousands of homeowner’s from being forced to line FEMA’s pockets with insurance money. 

“As one of the engineers on the project told me, “This is not about flooding, this is about insurance.”  For me, economically, it’s a no-brainer.  I live in the east end of the flood zone and thus my assessment is only $16, as opposed to $412 (and going up 20% a year for the next several years) for insurance.  But more than that, my money will stay in my community and have a direct positive effect for me and my neighbors. 

“Yes, I think the floodgate is unnecessary, but it’s better than putting an unearned commission in the pockets of insurance companies and giving money to FEMA for them to dole out so folks can rebuild houses in “tornado alley”.  I urge everyone in the Smith Canal Assessment District to vote “yes” on this project.  And if you get a chance, ask a FEMA official to explain how this differs from extortion.  Now, let’s just hope the feds don’t come back in a few years with a new set of onerous regulations.”

The Smith Canal levees have never failed and maybe never will. But maybe isn’t definitely. More to the point, Uncle Sam can’t officially say the levees are safe because people have built houses, decks and other things on them. So they can’t get in there and inspect.

Given that, the question is simply, if the levee breaks, who should be liable? I understand the feds’ position. People are building on the levees and inspector cannot guarantee they are structually sound. Well, they say they can’t. Maxwell has argued America puts probes on Mars so certainly there’s away to gauge the levee’s soundness.

But in real life uncle Sam is not expected to deploy NASA-level technology to inspect levees, an expensive venture that would set a precedent for inspections everywhere. So, given that real-world inspections cannot be done, indemnifying the levees would be writing Smith Canal a blank check.

The bigger picture involves the policy shift that followed Hurricane Katrina. People who live in areas the have flooded time and time again should absorb part of the cost of the clean-up and relief. That way all taxpayers are not unduly burdened repeatedly by peoples’ choice to live with flood risk. Yes, I know, Smith Canal has never flooded. That’s the hold-your-nose part.

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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