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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery, by Mary C. Comerio
(1999) Berkeley: University of California Press, xix, 300 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna M. Hoffman, Anthropologist and Co-Editor of The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective.
last one hundred years, population shifts have drawn people to teeming
urban centers that lie in regions prone to devastating natural forces.
Consequently, Mary C. Comerio states in her straightforward volume, property
damage and lives lost to disaster have skyrocketed. While she cites
and uses for comparison international examples, she quickly turns to her
main focus, the United States and US disaster assistance policy. Even
more specifically, she concentrates on California and Florida, with their
earthquakes and hurricanes. Whereas the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake
affected a sleepy beach town, the Northridge earthquake of 1994 struck
a megalopolis. The dollar cost for damages went from $6 million for the
Santa Barbara earthquake to nearly $7.5 billion for Loma Prieta in 1989,
and $26 billion for Northridge. The $7 billion in loss incurred in
Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in 1989 shot to nearly $23 billion for
Andrew in Florida in 1992.
cause of these damage cost increases has been housing loss, which constitutes
the greatest single component of all loss in an urban disaster. At
the same time, housing recovery is necessary to economic recovery. For
the first time, Comerio says, American housing losses in catastrophes
have reached the same scale as those often experienced in less developed
countries. The difference is that in developing countries, the death
toll is enormous and the cost to rebuild is marginal. In the developed
world, the number of deaths is typically lower, but the economic cost
for repairing structural damage is staggering.
each recent disaster in the United States, communities and individuals
have asked for increased assistance to repair the losses. The costs are
growing so out of hand that insurance companies have departed whole geographic
areas, and government programs, such as the Federal Emergency Management
Administration (FEMA), are pressed beyond their capacity to aid victims.
Wary of the exposure they could face, the federal government, assistance
agencies, insurers and financial establishments are looking for mechanisms
to limit disaster costs. Who, Comerio asks, will pay to repair the
damage and replace the losses, so much of it housing, in future disasters? How
can government draw the line between public and private responsibility
for losses when so many live in massively built environments?
assistance policy in the United States, as it now stands, has arisen from
a patchwork of programs among various governmental departments. Both
public and private schemes have seen mismanagement, lack of coordination,
and bad decision-making. In light of the new pressure brought about
by increased disaster costs, a change of approach to disaster aid and
housing recovery must come about, hence Comerio's sub-title, "New
Policy for Urban Housing Recovery."
throughout the book are two main points: (1) housing and other decisions
are made much too soon after a disaster, and (2) perilous areas and their
inhabitants have taken little heed of hazard mitigation or limiting development. Comerio
cites the Census as a possible way to determine the social and economic
status of victims.
American model for disaster relief and recovery is a mixture of charity,
federal programs, and private insurance. The model arose out of common
practice and mounting legislation. It worked until disasters grew, but
can no longer cope. Comerio asserts that only government can compel
owners to improve building standards, only government has the capacity
to provide a safety net for victims, and only private insurance can guarantee
the funds for repairs by underwriting a portion of an owners risk in exchange
for an annual fee. She then recommends a series of changes to improve
disaster aid policy in the US.
income tax incentive should be provided for those who undertake hazard
mitigation in their homes (for as in health care, prevention is the best
cost control). Such an incentive must be combined with insurers offering
discounts to policyholders who enact mitigation measures. Recovery should
be reconceptualized as reconstruction financing with federal funds targeted
only to projects in the public sector, such as transportation. Private
recovery should be managed primarily through private insurance. In the
meantime, government should work with insurers to obtain the data to develop
improved hazard estimates. In short, disaster policy needs to focus
on programs that reduce damage to housing stock, but maintain government's
role as a financier rebuilding public infrastructure. The government's
part in financing recovery for private property, except for very low-income
homeowners and renters, should be eliminated. Instead, government
should operate as the underwriter of a working and healthy insurance market.
takes a bold step in tackling policy change, but a number of recommendations
are cause for concern. First, I question the underlying valuation
premise. When Comerio declares that the major cost of disasters in
less developed nations is in death tolls, but "marginal" in
housing costs, it leads one to wonder, in whose terms are the costs "marginal?"
Comerio appears to make this appraisal from the viewpoint of the American
dollar, but the cost to an Indian or Peruvian worker to replace lost housing
is as dear and difficult in their income and monetary system as the price
tag for someone in the United States. From the outset, Comerio's
argument would be strengthened had she addressed the issue of relative
of how to assess of housing damage provokes serious hesitation. An
unease immediately arises over who judges the social, economic, and other
conditions. There are many viewpoints the government agents, aid givers,
insurance adjustors, and perhaps the most pertinent, the victims ö-
and an equal number of standards. Throughout the book, one finds
no mention of the various players party to decisions on relief, repair,
and recovery, nor how their input comes into play. One of the primary
errors whose consequences are amplified throughout the disaster recovery
assistance process is the negation of the victims' own perceptions and
their valuations of their condition, and Comerio's analysis would benefit
from considering the victims' perspective. All the described assessments
seem to arrive from external evaluation. For example, in gauging
who has the most flexibility to be relocated after a calamity, Comerio
cites the old and young. But in my experience, the elderly, when voicing
their own wishes, have the least flexibility. Furthermore, most communities,
certainly the extended ones in massive urban disasters, are quite variegated.
They hold rich and poor, men and women, all ages, many ethnic groups. Among
them, measurement of social and economic status is highly nuanced. As
Bolin and Stanford (1998) point out, even closely neighboring areas differ
in their recovery factors. Such details as language ability and education
alter the conditions. No instrument as blunt as the Census is appropriate
in assigning social and economic stature.
main problems with disaster recovery and housing programs is, to use Erikson's
term (1994), the ghetto-ization of victims, that is, the removal of those
suffering losses physically, which progresses on to psychologically, from
their former integration within their communities. Oliver-Smith (1996),
among others, describes this ghetto-ization and its detrimental, often
long-lasting effects. Also, in most disaster situations a segmentary
opposition arises where outside agents, appearing with their policies
and programs, begin to treat victims as opponents, and victims, in turn,
treat agents and insurers as enemies. This antagonism can develop
between victims and non-victims within disaster zones as well. Comerio's
singularly pocketbook approach takes none of the social impacts attending
disaster into account. What in Comerio's policies is there to prevent
ghetto-ization in rebuilding programs, particularly if low cost construction
is used? How is social integration to be enabled? No policy
is complete that does not take these matters into consideration, and Comerio's
proposals seem to bespeak an externally imposed approach that is destined
toincite divisiveness and animosity.
separating relief (crisis aid) from recovery (reconstruction aid), recommends
that reconstruction help be delayed until the actual needs are revealed.
First, often considerable time, even years, is required in disaster situations
until all needs are manifest. Secondly, the problem arises once again
of who decides the needs, and who controls the allocation of resources? Difficult
issues must be faced in replacing destroyed housing - equality in housing,
fair compensation, adequate replacement - and the contestation of different
factions is common. Old political leaders fight with new, government officials
and survivors advance conflicting viewpoints, arguments over entitlement
erupt among victims. Comerio advocates a limit to all recovery funds of
two years. She feels that after two years, recovery decisions are personal,
not disaster related. But the complexity of the situation is often
such that the disruption has a much longer recovery cycle, as Dyer
(1993) demonstrates for the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, and Peacock et
al. (1999) for Hurricane Andrew. In some U.S. disasters, insurers
had still not reimbursed victims by the end of two years.
Comerio suggests, one cost effective proposal is simply to replace housing
and not other sorts of property, I cannot see how this but further promotes
the separation of rich from the poor. She states that this division is
already a problem in a system where loans to repair or replace damaged
housing go only to those adjudged credit worthy. If only those whose
private insurance or personal wealth provides them replacement of furniture
and other personal goods, what are those lacking such resources provided?
Houses, but no beds? Kitchens, but no pans?
in private insurance and in government policy has generally been for those
devastated to "be made whole" again. Without replacement
of goods, do we not instead create a new population of those permanently
"in the hole?" Comerio points out the majority of those
in need of housing assistance are renters in multi-occupancy dwellings
and poor. Do we promote the continuation of their situation, or at least
put them back to the level they formerly held? For that matter, some
would argue, that recovery aid provides an opportunity to tender people
betterment. This is a core controversy which is fraught on all sides -
to rebuild status quo or grasp an opportunity for change. To my mind
to incorporate as policy any approach that widens the gap between the
rich and poor, or does not at least attempt to return all to prior circumstance,
is not in the nation's best interest.
I find Comerio's work quite anti-victim in stance and tone. Both
her review of the disaster scenario and her policy recommendations echo
a technocratic elitist position in which empathetic concerns are elided.
While Comerio here and there brings up the heart-wrenching matters that
disaster victims face, the loss of life and objects, the long recovery,
the loss of context, the trauma, her acknowledgment in each instance quickly
fades. Such comments in the book starting with how many disaster
victims expecting to be made whole "secretly hope to do better,"
(p. 19), an insinuation several times and ways reiterated, on to "the
federal attempt to be all things to all disaster victims was leading us
to become a nation of whiners and con artists, out to fleece the government,"
as if the calamity were "somebody's fault" [p. 225-226],
that "funds designed to assist victims in need have been transformed
into entitlement programs for aggressive individuals and governments,"
[p. 226] that individuals and local governments have become "demanding
and dependent" [p. 226] (shades of the anti-welfare argument!), indicate
a siding with an attitude aid givers, government agents, and the leagues
of arriving experts often hold towards disaster victims: they are greedy. The
accusation of avarice in the face of their devastation and their struggle
to recover assaults those hit by disaster constantly, as if the disaster
were indeed their fault! I find most victims of disaster not nearly
so calculated or grasping, and not, in fact, greedy. To paraphrase
the words of Erin Brockovich, most just want to see their kids safe again. The
dollar costs are high for disaster recovery and the number of dollars
for the increasing number of harmed are affecting us all, but at the bottom
line who are we helping here? Fiscal policy or people?
Comerio brings up the rates of fraudulent insurance claims, but neglects
to counter that figure with the rate in which insurers welch on policies.
So doing, her implication is that the system of recompenses, that is,
insurance companies and their payments, is just. Rather, it seems more
likely that if people cheat, it is because they feel the system is cheating
them, and if their numbers are legion, it may be equally reasonable to
conclude that something about the system must be far from just. The
tactics of insurers in disaster situations I know, in fact, led people
to feel they had little recourse but to hedge and dissemble. Comerio
is somewhat facile, also, in her review of disasters harming smaller populations
and, to her mind, affecting "affluent" populations well-covered
by private insurance. She tells us, for instance, that everyone damaged
by the Oakland Firestorm was privately insured and none needed government
housing aid. While this is true of the majority, it is certainly
not an absolute. I know of a number of victims of that disaster,
often elderly, some cash-poor, others simply misguided, who, owning their
houses free of mortgage, believed they needed no insurance and were left
quite demolished. The area, as all affluent areas, also held many
places the blame for the fact that communities can rarely make land use
changes or improvements after a disaster upon victims who push for status
quo. She overlooks faulting rosy-eyed, outside experts who arrive armed
with sweeping visions of betterment without consulting the actual inhabitants
(Cyclone Tracy provides as good example, see Banbury 1994) or the slowness
of government decision-making mechanisms which usually begin with the
commission of committees to "study" the situation. Nor does
she mention a major factor in any of the monetary exploitation that surrounds
a calamity, the masses of opportunistic workers, developers, and the like
who flood into a devastated area with the expectation it will provide
them a fast buck at inflated construction costs.
importantly, though, nowhere does Comerio address a truly key element
in the matter of housing recovery in the United States, the insurance
industry. She discusses the role of private insurance in disasters
as a continuous theme throughout the work, and she ends with the recommendation
that private insurance be the main sources for reconstruction funding
in housing. But while tackling the need for change in government
programs, she never speaks to the same issue with insurers. For any
program of post-disaster reconstruction to work, the insurance industry
treatment of policyholders absolutely must be changed as well. Insurers'
practices towards disaster victims must be legislated, and with a set
of laws that have teeth. It is unacceptable that insurers delay payments
to claimants often up to years, that they obstruct, obfuscate and deter
the claiming process, and frequently deny claims. The insurance industry
in housing coverage, as in health care, much controls government policy
and this control must be broached and wrestled with. To allow the
insurance Goliath to run on uncontrolled in housing protection as in other
matters, seemingly leads to the detriment of all, as the health insurance
debacle gives witness.
apparent advocacy for the insurance industry, Comerio blames the state
of California for making insurance companies pay more to victims of recent
disasters than policies were technically worth. She does not, however,
rebuke insurers for under-estimating by far rebuilding costs, under-measuring
homes, and other practices perhaps aimed purposefully at keeping premiums
down and attracting more customers. These errors led to the numerous
under-valued policies sold by the companies and left many victims desperately
under-insured. Also, it was insurance companies who devised and offered
the "full replacement" policies that Comerio sees as no longer
viable. For a mere two dollars more a year for the coverage, insurers
reaped an enormous annual profit when a disaster they never thought would
happen, in fact, did not occur. Comerio scolds people for denying that
a disaster will ever happen to them, but insurance companies were and
are guilty of the same attitude. In fact, they profit hugely from
it. She laments how insurers are leaving the market, but they are
leaving not only because of the scarcity of reinsurers but also because
they have been caught in the snare of selling guarantees they didn't believe
they would have to meet.
of her solution, Comerio proposes that insurance companies develop a number
of sorts of policies with a number of degrees of coverage, so that homeowners
can choose their risks. Would that buyers were so educated! Nor
can ordinary people be asked to understand risk in the manner that insurance
companies do. Furthermore, insurance agents are rarely well informed
about their own policies and are often avid to get any policy signed whether
it protects customers properly or not. For a multi-policy option to work,
again, legislation would be needed, and as much education would have to
take place for agents and customers about the nature of the contracts
as about hazard mitigation.
asks whatever happened to old notions of kinship and self-reliance as
critical components of disaster recovery. She says Americans have
lost track of the age-old tradition of depending on friends, relatives,
and neighbors to help them rebuild, and she calls the advance of aid programs
"mission creep." But in this chide, she takes no cognizance
of the well-documented fact that people do very much help one another
after a disaster, and, in fact, victims very much help one another. However,
people cannot help one another build houses. House building in American
has become a task of experts. It is legislated and regulated in a
manner that debars friends, family, and neighbors from performing it. Nor
does she acknowledge the social changes that have accompanied the demographic
ones. Rarely do American urban dwellers live in or near extended
families anymore. Even nuclear families are fragmented. Friends
notoriously disappear when disaster strikes, having no long-standing tradition
providing them a code of behavior to follow (Hoffman 1998), while neighbors
are often total strangers and victims as well. Rare also is the kin
or pal who can afford to replace someone else's house.
all these concerns merely swim about one central question: are we
or are we not a "beneficent" state concerned with the well-being
of all? Disaster aid, aimed at housing or other need, is not welfare. Disaster
victims are not a population to take to task for idleness or some kind
of recidivistic dependence. These are the sufferers of an unexpected calamity,
and massive urban centers are not anyone's "fault," but a phenomenon
we all share. Are we willing to see parts of our cities become wastelands? Are
we willing to see these regions reoccupied only by those with private
financial resources, while other, perhaps prior, occupants are pushed
out for lack of aid?
despite the book's shortcomings, Comerio has provided a major service. We
have in her book a warning about the burgeoning of vulnerable populations
in areas highly prone to disaster. Through the context of housing,
we have a further warning about the rising cost of disaster from every
perspective - life, goods, disruption, recovery, and dollars. She
has brought a serious and looming problem into the open, and her stress
on the greatest damage and cost control being hazard mitigation before
disaster strikes is more than laudatory, it is utterly necessary. In
this, along with personal home protection, she includes the raising and
enforcing of building codes.
presents us with an initial foray. At this point, the approach is but
a broad framework. Many more pieces are needed to fill in that frame,
most of them, unfortunately, extremely complex.
Bolin, R., with L. Stanford.
Peacock,W, B. Morrow and H. Gladwin.