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Quake Is History, Debris Isn’t : National insurance system could be an answer

Natural-disaster planning in this country has been marred by a major shortcoming--the failure to prepare for, or even consider, long-term costs in the rebuilding and recovery that follow a disaster.

Generally, a huge package of emergency federal aid is quickly thrown at the problem. The current Congress has come up with a different approach: immediate offsets for disaster aid packages through funding reductions in other federal programs. Well, big deal. That doesn’t take us any further down the road of preparedness or recovery.

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VERMIN PARADISE: The best example of Los Angeles’ current quake problems can be expressed in one word common to all disasters--rubble. All over the area, rubble from the 1994 Northridge earthquake is piling up on curb sides and lots. As time passes, these piles are increasingly a public health hazard, a breeding ground for rats and other vermin.

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After the Northridge earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency coughed up $233 million to haul away approximately 2.4 million tons of seismically spawned rubble. The amount already spent here just on debris removal amounts to more than one-third of what FEMA paid for all recovery efforts after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

It gets worse. In the month that has passed since FEMA rejected requests for more debris removal aid from Los Angeles officials, another 100,000 tons of the stuff has materialized. At the current rate of the city’s relatively meager cleanup efforts, it will take more than 6.4 years to remove it all.

There is only one feasible solution for this and other long-term cost problems. The situation again highlights the need for a national disaster insurance program, which the Congress has continually failed to enact.

Such a program would offer incentives to states that adopt codes making new construction less vulnerable. It would give insurance companies incentives to offer coverage against quakes and other perils not normally covered in basic policies. It would also create a federal reinsurance fund, financed by the insurance industry, to reduce the risk of insolvency among individual companies.

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VAST SCOPE: FEMA has been quite generous in what it has paid for to date. The amount dwarfs any previous spending on debris removal. Not even the combined tasks of funding the recovery of Hurricane Andrew and the Midwest floods provides a adequate point of reference.

The situation here is much more complicated, especially in terms of the vast amounts of concrete rubble--much more than generated by the hurricane or the flooding.

On Friday, the Los Angeles City Council will again consider various short-term solutions to the Northridge debris problem. It might be possible that some federal housing money diverted to quake recovery costs could be used. But the long-term answer cannot be avoided, and that is a national disaster insurance program.


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