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Book: 'The Geography Of Risk'


After the storm comes, the cleanup crews and then the construction crews, rebuilding houses where a hurricane wiped them out. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul has been studying who pays for the cycle of destruction and rebuilding. And his new book is called "The Geography Of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GILBERT GAUL: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your book could not be more timely, it's out this week as Dorian rakes the East Coast. Let's begin by talking about Charleston specifically. This is a city that, as you write, has endured three 500-year floods since 2015. Would this one be considered a fourth?

GAUL: It could be. Since 2015, three times they've been hit by what I call rain bombs, which are either hurricanes that stall out at the coast or just horrific torrential rain. And the homes behind The Battery - beautiful old pastel antebellum homes all worth over a million dollars or close - have flooded 3 out of 5 years in a row. And it's likely again they'll flood after this.

SHAPIRO: Just to stick with Charleston for one more moment, you write that many of the city's problems are a consequence of misguided planning - how?

GAUL: Well...

SHAPIRO: And at, the same time, people who point to Charleston as a great example of a city that's doing it right. So how can both of these things be true?

GAUL: So Charleston, beginning in the mid-'80s, actually began to look at its storm water problems. And the solution they came up with is to build these pumping stations and what I guess you'd just call large drains to get the water out of downtown. In that sense, they're ahead of the game, right? But historically, the city, back when people weren't thinking about things like this, was basically built on top of a wetland and filled in with sawdust - literally with sawdust and dirt and other things that leak and leach water all the time. So it's - it was a disaster waiting to happen.

SHAPIRO: At this point, we're all familiar with this cycle of destruction, federal relief, rebuilding - whether that is New Orleans after Katrina or New Jersey after Sandy. And the central argument of your book seems to be that this is like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. What's the alternative?

GAUL: Well, there aren't a lot of good alternatives at the moment. There is a whole industry that, for shorthand, I'll call the resiliency industry, which posits that we can do things that will help us endure what's happening in the climate and the amping up of hurricanes and other kinds of storms - Northeasterners, et cetera. But really all they do is buy time. In the long run, they don't solve the problem.

SHAPIRO: And they buy less and less time as storms become more and more intense and sea levels rise.

GAUL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. People talk about elevating properties, widening beaches with Corps of Engineer projects putting sand on the beaches, building stronger houses - which is obvious. But there are other things - you know, buyouts and retreats, strategic retreat - which for the most part, at the coast, don't work. People aren't prepared. They love being at the beach and having their ocean views, and they really don't want to talk about the seriousness of the threat.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, but the idea of resilience is so essentially American. You know, this concept that after any setback, we will rebound stronger than before.

GAUL: Sure.

SHAPIRO: I mean, can we really let go of that idea?

GAUL: We're going to have to let go that idea at some point. One of the things you see - and it's kind of interesting - when you go to disaster - hurricane disasters within days of the disasters or the week of the disaster, you often see people putting up American flags, almost as if it's their patriotic duty to rebuild in harm's way, which is one of the paradoxes of all of this.

SHAPIRO: And so would you have a city like Miami or Houston or New Orleans or Charleston just shrink after a storm?

GAUL: Well, I think some of them are going to have to shrink after a storm - the storms of the future. When I looked at the data on hurricane damage and analyzed it, what I discovered is it's far more money than anyone ever imagines. In the last two decades alone, we're talking about $750 billion dollars - three quarters of a trillion dollars in damage just in the last two decades. And the federal government is picking up a huge share of hurricane recoveries.

SHAPIRO: One statistic from this book that jumped out to me was that, you say in the 1950s, the federal government covered 5% of rebuilding costs after a hurricane. Now taxpayers cover 70%. Given that the federal government is supposed to protect civilians, what's wrong with that?

GAUL: Well, the issue is what we're spending money on, whom we're spending money on and what I would call the calculus of risk. If a home - a second home, a beach house on a barrier island that is low-lying and vulnerable to storms gets damaged, wrecked or flooded, should that be a private risk? Should it be a public risk? And how do you apportion that risk?

SHAPIRO: I read this book on my vacation last month in a beach cabin. So am I part of the problem? Should I feel guilty about that?

GAUL: No, absolutely not. And there's not going to be an overnight change in any of this, and I'm - and believe me, I'm not naive enough to think that there would be. But maybe with a little luck, we'll have a slightly more serious conversation about what is occurring at the coast, what we've done at the coast and how, if at all, we can deal with these issues because this isn't going away.

SHAPIRO: Gilbert Gaul's new book is "The Geography of Risk: Epic storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts." Thanks for speaking with us today.

GAUL: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.