Littoral Limits: Flood Insurance and the Quantification of Risk in the United States, 1914-2018
Rumsey, Brian Edward
University of Kansas
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Littoral Limits has three related concerns: how flood risk came to be quantified, how such information was used and contested once quantified, and how this information has shaped our relationships with the natural world. These three concerns come together under the unifying theme of limits: the practice of quantifying and making policy on the basis of floodplain boundaries has entailed the determination and contestation of limits to which land is favored for diverse uses, and which land might best be regulated to limit flood hazard exposure. This project is carried out in large part via a case study of the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program that has driven flood risk knowledge production and floodplain land use policy in the United States since its creation in 1968. The mid-twentieth century, when federal involvement in flood insurance was debated and eventually enacted, was a time of overt tension between two approaches to flood-prone lands. One of these approaches, floodplain management, prioritized managing human inhabitation and usage of flood-prone lands in order to limit exposure to hazard. The other approach, flood control, emphasized building structures that restrict or divert floodwaters in order to make flood- prone areas safer for inhabitation. In other words, floodplain management involved determining natural limits and using them to constrain land use, while flood control involved pushing the limits of acceptable land use deeper into flood-prone terrain. Proponents of both approaches were involved in the flood insurance debate, with expert theorists more in favor of floodplain management, and politicians and other interests more divided between approaches. This dissertation concludes that while the NFIP has indeed made some tangible contributions to the adoption of floodplain management practices in the United States, its most significant influence has been to help maintain extant development and inhabitation practices in flood-prone areas, iii even in the face of natural limits that are shifting due to climate change as well as land use change. This is not due to the triumph of one of the two approaches mentioned above, so much as it is due to a third, implied but rarely enunciated, approach at work: flood insurance as a taxpayer-subsidized way of protecting development that falls within harm’s way. This case study of flood insurance provides insights into the deeply ingrained drive to derive profit from the development of the natural world, using sources including archival records, Congressional hearings, newspapers, gray literature, and published scientific articles. For different groups that take an interest in flood-prone land, economic development means different things. For propertied interests, it means the ability to maximize the financial worth of their properties. For managerially-minded academics and experts, it often means minimizing governmental hazard exposure, thereby minimizing human impacts and taxpayer burden. The history of the NFIP reveals that, in conjunction with other federal programs, the scales have tipped ever more heavily toward the promotion and stabilization of real estate as an investment vehicle, for both middle-class and wealthy homeowners and large-scale developers. This is a status quo that is becoming increasingly unstable and untenable as hurricanes and the specter of climate change and sea level rise call into question the economic and engineering logics of stationarity on which federal flood insurance and flood control have been based. This project makes several historiographical contributions. It contributes to environmental history via its examination of the quantification of the natural world in a different way than environmental histories of production and extraction. It contributes to U.S. political history by highlighting the enduring relevance of an often-overlooked Great Society program. Finally, it contributes to the history of disaster by demonstrating how hazard mapping can be perceived to be a catastrophic event.
- Dissertations 
- History Dissertations and Theses 
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