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After Sandy

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As the recovery from Superstorm Sandy continues so too does the national debate over whether homeowners and even entire communities should be allowed to rebuild in areas that are repeatedly damaged by storms.

The desire to rebuild and return to normal as quickly as possible can be restorative by giving a sense of hope to displaced homeowners, but it may not be the best policy and needs to be weighed against alternatives that can be safer and less costly in the long term. New York and New Jersey estimate they will need $79 billion in federal aid to cover damages and future mitigation measures.

Taxpayers will pick up federal costs through Federal Emergency Management Agency loans and other assistance as well as the National Flood Insurance Program. Congress had to approve an emergency appropriation of $9 billion for the taxpayer-subsidized program, which is $18 billion in debt.

It is also partly funded by homeowner premiums. Participation in the flood insurance program established in 1968 is mandatory for homeowners in federally designated flood-prone areas.

Property owners are free to rebuild in storm-prone regions, but the limited resources have governments at every level questioning whether that should be allowed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is leaving it up to homeowners to decide whether to rebuild.

As an example, an Associated Press report identified the community of Sea Bright, N.J., “a chronically flooded spit of sand” where the entire business district was wiped out and three-quarters of its residents are still homeless three months later. Sea Bright is taking steps now to lessen damage from future storms by requiring homeowners to raise their rebuilt homes as much as 17 feet about sea level. Elevating structures is becoming common practice in coastal communities.

However, there are alternatives such as one taken by Westerly, R.I. It received $1.1 million in federal funds to buy vulnerable properties near the Pawcatuck River.

Several states have also tried buyouts and now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is doing the same in his proposed $143 billion budget.

With $30 billion hoped for in federal relief, Gov. Cuomo proposed spending $21 billion for rebuilding, including funds for a voluntary home buyout where owners cannot or choose not to rebuild.

Gov. Cuomo would let local communities take the lead in determining rebuilding specifics, although plans would have to meet state approval and rebuilding would have to meet “modern building standards.”

It was not immediately clear whether there would be a cap on the buyouts or how long it would take to get the money to property owners, which could influence individual decisions.

But voluntary efforts alone might not work. They will have limited affect. Taxpayer-funded bailouts can pay multiple times to have properties restored.

Strict building codes need to be implemented to protect, or even deter, future development or rebuilding in vulnerable, disaster-prone areas.

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