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Alexander B. Lemann, Stronger Than the Storm: Disaster Law in a Defiant Age, 78 La. L. Rev. 437 (2018)

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78 Louisiana Law Review 437 (2018)


This paper seeks to offer a new way of understanding the impulse to rebuild in the wake of disasters. This is a major problem. One recent study estimated that three feet of sea level rise—expected in consensus estimates by 2100—would displace about 4.2 million Americans, and yet our current legal mechanisms for encouraging retreat from flood-prone areas have not been particularly successful. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a panel of urban planning experts notoriously called for the abandonment of several particularly hard-hit neighborhoods, sparking a political firestorm that put all talk of retreat off the table almost immediately. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy saw a similar dynamic. Instead of retreating from risky coastal areas whose long-term prospects are grim, people insisted that they were “stronger than the storm” and rebuilt with gusto.

I argue that rebuilding is motivated by emotional responses that have been ignored by traditional regulatory tools being used to encourage retreat. Recovery is revenge, in that it allows victims to “get even” with storms by asserting their fortitude and resilience. Recovery is culture, in that it allows victims to express their commitments to their communities and ways of life. And recovery is resistance, in that it allows victims to reject the implication that they are less deserving of protection and respect than their dry neighbors. Governments that forbid rebuilding impede these messages, reinforcing the harms visited upon victims by storms. I argue that appreciating these aspects of rebuilding leads to new insights into how governments can provide a similar sense of repair without simply helping their residents move right back into harm’s way.

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