The biggest driver of coastal sprawl isn’t greedy developers or the rich. It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This government agency provides over $600 billion dollars in flood insurance coverage that private insurance companies refuse to touch.

Private insurers won’t carry it for the same reason they won’t insure homes built on Navy bombing ranges. They don’t believe barrier islands, mangrove swamps, and low-lying beaches are sensible places to build, particularly now that hurricane seasons are turning nastier. See, scientists have discovered that the East Coast experiences 25- to 45-year storm cycles. And we’re in a new one now.

Forty-five years ago, you couldn’t get a mortgage for high-risk beachfront building. But then FEMA assumed the risk and the coastal real-estate market boomed.

Ironically, FEMA is best known for post-disaster relief. The whole thing reminds me of those firemen turned arsonists. When they finally got caught, they talked about the rush they got going into the flames to rescue their victims. The one difference of course is our tax-money doesn’t buy the arsonists’ gas. But it does subsidize the flood insurance.

Trust me, there are more sensible models for living safely by the sea. When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida panhandle in 1995, towns like Destin and Dune-Allen were devastated. But the town of Seaside, 280 old Florida-style frame homes set back behind the dunes, came out unscathed.

Seaside sited its homes behind protective sand dunes. The town also used tough building standards designed to resist whistling winds, sank foundation pilings deep in the ground, and planted lots of native trees and grasses to secure the dunes and buffer the houses.

It used to be that everyone there built well back from the beach, the founding developer of Seaside tells me. That is, before federal flood insurance made stupidity feasible.

David Helvarg is an author and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign. This commentary originally appeared Sept. 19 on Marketplace (, public radio’s daily business news program.