Should We Always Rebuild? At What Point Should We Stop Rebuilding?

I wasn’t sure if this should go in the “politics” category or the “flamewars” one, but since I’m asking this question in good faith, I’m putting it in “politics.”

I was listening to the Slate Political Gabfest on the way to work this morning, and the hosts of the show have been talking about the various natural disasters that have hit the US for the past couple of weeks. One of the hosts brought up an idea that I’ve been thinking about a lot:

Should the US government ALWAYS help rebuild a destroyed area like Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, etc? As climate change increases the likelihood that certain areas are going to be devastated by natural disasters repeatedly, at what point do we as a society say “enough is enough?” Should we even say that to begin with?

The host talked about how, most likely, the government is going to spend X billions of dollars to rebuild location Y, only to have to do it again in the near future. Instead, wouldn’t that money be better spent using it to relocate the population of that area?

Just as an example, instead of spending billions of dollars to rebuild Houston, only to most likely have to do it again in a couple of years, wouldn’t it be more efficient and economical to use that money to help residents of Houston move? And instead of having to spend that additional money in a couple of years to help rebuild Houston in the future, we could use it for something else: scientific research, better education, whatever. His point was that it seems somewhat foolish to spend billions of dollars again and again and again to help rebuild areas when we know that they’re just going to get destroyed repeatedly, especially with climate change making things worse.

On the one hand, I think he makes a good point, strictly speaking from an economic and utilitarian standpoint. On the other hand, these are people’s homes and I know that if I were from Houston, or New Orleans, or Miami, or or Puerto Rico, or even New York City, I wouldn’t want the government basically telling me that I had to move.

I just wanted to throw this out there to the forum and see what people thought…

I’m not in Miami anymore, and I don’t really have too much affection for it. But the idea of being forced to move away from it made me a bit angry, so you can imagine how that would go down with the general population that loves the city. At best you’d be splitting and angering an entire community, at least you’ll be wasting way more money than it’s worth.

I totally get that viewpoint.

But if that’s the case, instead of the government forcing people to movie, what if they just said no more money for rebuilding? Don’t we, as a society, as a country, hell as even humans, have to come to the realization and admit that with climate change, various parts of the planet are no longer habitable without huge amounts of money to sustain and rebuild them?

It would be one thing for the government to spend X billions of dollars to help Miami build infrastructure to survive and “weather” future natural disasters, but economically speaking, it seems kind of idiotic to spend money again and again to rebuild something that you know is going to keep getting destroyed.

You can make a case to re-build smarter. If I lived anywhere near a place that had a history of flooding I’d want to live on the second floor at a minimum.

Here’s the thing: People who own the land are going to try to build crappy housing on it, sell it to someone who doesn’t know better and repeat the process when the next disaster happens. It’s extremely unethical, but it seems to be status quo.

Right now there is a clear difference in how Puerto Rico is being treated versus how Houston and Miami are being treated. Trump doesn’t believe that the people of PR are full citizens or deserving of the same efforts that was sent to Houston.

I agree with you about Puerto Rico completely. I’m trying to keep this just as a thought experiment though, and not bring Trump or politics into it.

Regardless of what’s actually happening in Puerto Rico versus what’s happening in Houston or Miami, all three are similar in that all three places are most likely going to suffer a natural disaster like this in the future, repeatedly. As a result, should the government at a certain point say enough is enough? It would be one thing if we rebuilt smarter, like you wrote, but I don’t really see that happening.

If, instead of a natural disaster, there was a nuclear power plant failure or meltdown, think Chernobyl or Fukushima, I don’t think anyone would think it wrong for the government to say “You can’t live here anymore because it’s unsafe.” I have no idea, but couldn’t you make the same argument about natural disasters? Again, I’m just throwing this out there as a thought experiment because I’m trying to figure out my own thoughts on this, and I value the other opinions on this forum.

Agreed re Trump and Puerto Rico.

Instead, what may make more sense, as you said, is to re-build smarter. Set up Dutch-like dikes and levies, if necessary, if it’s an area that’s flood prone and make sure they are properly maintained and upgraded as necessary.

Well, really, the only answer is “When it stops getting broken.”

If an earthquake destroys part of a city, you build to deal with earthquakes, until you get it right.

If a fire destroys a bunch of homes, you build with more fire-resistant materiel, you make evacuation plans and make the area more evacuation friendly, you take steps to prevent it happening again, until you get it right.

If a hurricane destroys a town, you rebuild so that it’s more resistant to hurricanes, until you get it right.

If the rules allow for otherwise, change them. If people build shitty, sub-spec houses, punish them, and/or tear it down and build it again.

Like, my city floods. Regularly, even, to varying degrees - sometimes it’s minor, other times(like 2011), it’s get your shit together and help people kinda times. But every time it happens, we get better, we do better, we pull together and help each other.

It’s not a case of “How far before we say no more”, in a moral society, it’s a case of, every time, saying “This will never happen like this again.”


Yes, in a moral society, we should band together and help everyone. But if you build your house in a place that’s going to get flooded every couple of years, and the degree to which it floods is only getting worse, shouldn’t, at some point, we just say “don’t live there anymore?”

Isn’t it more moral to use that money for other things instead of basically throwing it away, again and again, to rebuild something that we know is going to get destroyed? The US Senate just voted to give $15.3 billion in Harvey aid. In a couple of years, they’ll probably have to do the same thing again, if not give more money. Think of all the good that money could do if we didn’t rebuild Houston.

As @Raithnor wrote, we should rebuild smarter, but we’re not. And even if we did, at a certain point, no matter how smart you rebuild, certain parts of the planet are just uninhabitable. People don’t live on active volcanoes because it’s too dangerous. With climate change affecting the weather patterns and causing more dangerous storms, maybe we should reevaluate what places are safe to live in.

Or you could put your house on stilts, raise it off the ground, so flood damage is mitigated? Work on your flood mitigation plans like dam releases and flood mitigation channels? I mean, it’s not really that hard. If it breaks, figure out how it broke, and build it better. As morbid as it sounds, each disaster should teach you how to prevent a disaster. Learn, instead of giving up. And yeah, it costs money - but do you want to be a rich nation of shitty people who don’t give a fuck about the people that live there, or a less cashed up nation, but with safer, happier people?

Helping people is not a waste. It’s the right thing to do. After all, these disasters aren’t something these people could prevent realistically, people don’t control earthquakes, weather, fires, so on. The only way you could waste it is by not learning the lessons that events like this teach you.


I agree with everything you wrote, but why is it necessarily better or more moral to keep spending money again and again, knowing that these places are going to be destroyed when we could be using that same money for other things?

Is it more moral to help someone rebuild their home for the third or fourth time or to tell that person to move and then spend that money you saved on cancer research, or better education, or helping the homeless? Isn’t that a better use of that money? If the goal is to help the most people as possible, as efficiently as possible, isn’t it more moral to use that money for other things that can help more people?

Again, we know these things are going to happen, and when they’re going to happen, they’re going to be worse than before. Helping people is not a waste, like you wrote, and it is the right thing to do, but after a certain point, can’t we say enough is enough? (That’s what I’m trying to figure out) While people can’t prevent these disasters from happening, they can not live in those places. If your house floods, as a moral human being, I will want to help you. If your house floods a second time, or even a third, I will still help you. But at a certain point, I’m going to say “Dude, stop building your house there!” And while we’ve been spending money to rebuild your house 3-4 times, we haven’t been using that money for other things.

I keep asking this, but at some point, do we look at the planet and determine that certain places are just uninhabitable because of climate change? While people may not want to move or be forced to relocate, isn’t that just the Sunk Cost Fallacy writ large?


Combo deal. Spend money on rebuilding places, like huston and miami and whatever, but build them better each time like churba said and one of the things that makes them better is being about a mile or so from where they were, north.

Edit: upon like 2 seconds of further thought this may not work for islands… or places south of mountains or swamps… This is a dumb idea.

The problem with the USA isn’t right there in the name. States. You have a country of states.

California could probably be able to work out a way to incentivize people to move away from a problem area to a safer location. Texas is big enough as well that they could probably swing it internally.

The problem with Florida is that, realistically, they need to move a million people per year out of Miami and the surrounding area to… where? Not anywhere else in Florida. They need to be moved back up to the North Eastern parts of the country, away from the coast and rising sea levels.

But which state is going to voluntarily de-populate itself?


I don’t know if it’s “dumb,” but my immediate thought was how do you enforce it? Does the government just prevent people from living in those areas or does it say something like “you can live there, but we will no longer help you if your house gets destroyed?”

My answer is, ask a geologist. If you say “should we build here” and the geologist bursts into laughter, do not build there. (Examples include New Orleans, Naples, and every bar island ever.) If not, you’re good.

I recognize that many places have huge cultural importance, but that’s not as important as the lives that will be lost when you build your city 18’ below sea level (New Orleans), next to an active volcano (Naples), or on a structure that is by definition temporary (bar islands).

But I am biased, my undergrad degree is in geology.

Of course, if you’re not rebuilding, then you’re responsible for relocating the displaced residents, and helping them rebuild, which is a whole other huge problem. Can’t win.


I mean enforcing it seems simple enough. Distributing aid is something we already do. People who want it have to apply and there’s some bureaucracy but then they get a cheque. Make part of the bureaucracy that as part of the application process you have to show that you’re rebuilding farther from point x and closer to point y by z feet.

It’s just another hoop in the aid seeking process. Will it be gamed? Yes. Will it be unequally enforced? Probably. Will it work perfectly? No. Will it work like, in general, such that more people, in general, move further away? Most likely, yes.

There are experts in public policy who specialize in handling exactly these kinds of questions, so I’d let them have a crack at it and see what solution to enforcement they come up with.

My point that it’s dumb still stands however.

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I think the final straw will be if a place is permanently underwater, even then a City might rebuild itself into the next Venice.

I think any government basically abdicating its responsibility to its territory is dangerous for that Government. It invites serious question of “Why do we need you?”

True, a government that abdicates responsibility to its territory does raise that question. But is it more responsible to help an area rebuild knowing that it’s going to repeatedly get destroyed or use those resources for other purposes?

And as I mentioned in another comment, what if instead of a natural disaster, it was a man-made one like what happened in Chernobyl or Fukushima? No one thinks that the Russian or Japanese governments should spend the outrageous amounts of money it would take for people to live in those areas. Imagine an entire city where everyone had to go around wearing radiation suits all the time.

While those places are more dangerous to humans living there, it’s only a matter of degree. People could live in Chernobyl or near the Fukushima reactors, they’ll just eventually die of radiation poisoning. But using the same argument for rebuilding a place like Houston or Miami, shouldn’t the government have an obligation to help those areas rebuild regardless of the cost of human lives? If not, at what point do we decide that an area is uninhabitable?

Naples is probably fine for now. Volcanoes don’t go off without warning, and Naples is far enough that getting people out wouldn’t be a safety hazard. If it’s destroyed, bad luck, but rebuilding would be okay. The next eruption would probably be no sooner than 2,000 years.

This is different to earthquakes, which happen effectively without warning. It’s also different to hurricanes and floods, which are at the whims of the climate and don’t have a built-in clock like volcanoes.

Also volcanoes don’t seem to be getting worse or more common due to climate change or other human activity. Again, this is different to weather related events like hurricanes and, weirdly, earthquakes do to futzing with groundwater via pumping and fracking and stuff like that.

And this isn’t anything about the towns closer to Vesuvius than Naples. I’ve visited Pompei and the volcano and Hurculaneum and it boggles my mind they still let people build there.

There actually are people still living in Chernobyl, because they refused to leave their homes. There are also many animals living there, including an extremely rare breed of wild horse. It was a perfect nature reserve because poachers were too scared to go into it. This had changed and poaching had dramatically increased in recent years.

…I mean, there’s still tons of radiation. I’m sure cancer and mutation rates are higher than average. But the levels aren’t high enough to be of immediate danger anymore.

Regarding Mt. Vesuvius, she’s actually due for a bad eruption. The magma layer beneath the volcano is higher than many other volcanoes that are actively erupting, and the pressure just keeps building up. Next eruption is predicted to be plinean. Pyroclastic surges travel at 100s of miles an hour, and Naples is well within range. It’s not the lava that’s the important part in this case.

Though you are correct, climate change does not appear to be an influence on volcanoes, and they’re much easier to predict. Geologists are monitoring Vesuvius constantly for all these reasons. I was just using it as an example of “don’t build anywhere a geologist thinks is funny” rule of thumb.

This happened earlier this year about 10 miles from where my mother was born and where my cousins and nephew live.