Do individuals in the United States have a fundamental right to put themselves, their families, and their communities in harm's way, and to do so repeatedly? At what point should the federal government declare that it will no longer permit or at least will not encourage such actions?

That question was at the heart of a discussion, organized by the Division of U.S. Studies, about federal disaster mitigation policy. The Division, along with Representative Earl Blumenauer's office, has convened a number of meetings on this topic. The first was held at the Center in April 2004; another, the following April, at the U.S. Capitol. There has been some progress by the federal and state governments during these years – in large part because of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and its impact on both the public mind and the national political agenda – but, as speakers at the latest and third such meeting emphasized, much remains to be done. As Rep. Blumenauer noted, an astounding seventy-five percent of American residences are still at risk of one or more natural disasters.

Models of ways in which to deal with the problem already exist. The issue that may be the core problem, for example, is federal underwriting of housing construction in high risk areas through such measures as home mortgage tax deductions and subsidized mortgage loans. In 1982, however, the federal government enacted the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which denied public subsidies for home building in areas vulnerable to coastal erosion. That model, Blumenauer suggested, should be extended by, for example, refusing to subsidize flood insurance for homes rebuilt in high storm zones. It would not be revolutionary for the federal government to involve itself in land use policy, Blumenauer pointed out. The government, which is the nation's biggest land owner, has made such policy since it began removing Native Americans from their territory to make space for European settlers and, later, when it appropriated land for the intercontinental railroad. Federal subsidies should be available only for land use that is sustainable over the long term and for use that makes sense environmentally. At the very least, Blumenauer stressed, federal legislation should provide the resources that will encourage disaster mitigation planning at the local and individual level.

The federal government can turn to the states for additional ideas about disaster mitigation, and in fact has already done so. As Roger Kennedy documented in Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property and Your Tax Dollars, states have been steering people clear of dangerous places since 1867, with Wisconsin leading the way by placing fire-prone areas off-limits for private settlement. The federal government followed suit by creating national parks, which are protected safe-spaces. During the Cold War, however, a fear that Soviet missiles could reach large urban areas led to policies that encouraged population dispersion. Fannie Mae, for example, subsidized mortgage loans primarily for housing outside city limits. Other federal policies such as the GI Bill of 1946 (which, among other things, guaranteed home loans for World War II veterans) and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 (which established the national system of interstates, largely as a defense measure) promoted development outside cities. These policies encouraged sprawl and failed to take into account either the biological consequences of the environments into which people were encouraged to move or the potential impact on their and others' safety. The combination of global climate changes, fire load accumulation, and subsidized urban dispersion has had disastrous consequences, according to Kennedy: eight of the ten most fire-prone states in the nation today have the fastest growing populations.

Gov. Glendening noted that sprawl has not only contributed to the loss of green space but has impacted family structures and human health. As people move further from city centers, parents have longer commutes to work and much less family time. Children live such substantial distances from their schools today that fewer than 10 percent of the country's young students walk to school. This has consequences for the childhood obesity crisis and for energy use. Increased air pollution, a byproduct of an automobile-dependent society, has contributed to a surge in cases of childhood asthma. Growth will continue, Glendening said, and the question is not how to stop it but how to direct it into safe growth. The country ought to be emphasizing "smart growth" programs that provide incentives for the movement of people back into cities. States should encourage urban resettlement through tax breaks and subsidized loans, and by ending their subsidization of urban sprawl. They should designate land for green space to discourage settlement in potentially unsafe areas, rehabilitate urban schools and streets, and expand mass transit in order to improve the quality of city space. Glendening noted that about half of the states are implementing such programs, but stressed that federal partnership with the states is essential for continued smart growth.

Federal cooperation is crucial because current federal policies encourage sprawl and unsafe building and because there are some things – creating a consistent national rail policy, for example – that only the federal government can do. Given this country's dwindling energy resources and the disastrous effects of human-caused global climate change, more and more Americans will seek government protection from the impending calamities. This is the challenge for the federal government and for the states, and it is one that all concerned should recognize has reached the level of a national crisis.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum.