Friday, June 3, 2011

Hammerman on Ethics: Living in a Flood Zone

Q –In reading about the recent Mississippi River floods, it was shocking to see how spillways were opened in less populated areas, in effect deliberately flooding out thousands of homes in order to save more populated areas downstream. How can anyone justify wiping out entire communities like that? And conversely, is it right for people to deliberately move into areas that are known “spill zones,” where flooding is known to occur.

A – If a person knowingly moves his family into the path of a designated spillway, a town directly downstream from a dam or levee designated for the controlled release of water when a river is at flood stage, the government cannot be held responsible. The National Flood Insurance Program provides detailed maps, available to all who are considering purchasing a home. It’s the risk you take in living there. Similarly, you are also completely responsible if you choose to live directly on an earthquake fault line or in a house filled with asbestos or lead paint. The responsibility gets murkier when you are talking about living near nuclear reactors, oil rigs, or disputed borders, or in places frequented by tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, blizzards or floods.

Come to think of it, that’s just about everywhere, though New Orleans seems to have taken on more than its fair share of the risk. Maybe we would all be better off relocating to the moon, or in a glass bubble.

Your question hits on an age-old ethical quandary: Does the government (or anyone) have the right to sacrifice a few in order to save many? It’s a variant of the old “Trolley Problem,” suggested first by a granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland. A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. But by flipping a switch, the trolley would be redirected down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that one. Should you flip the switch or do nothing? Do we sacrifice one life in order to save five? Either way, the evil philosopher is the one with blood on his hands, but that makes it no easier to pull the switch.

Fortunately, In this case, we are talking about property rather than human lives. And there was ample warning to evacuate, as there usually is before a flood, hurricane or wildfire hits, less so for tornadoes. So, as long as warnings were provided, the government can’t be held responsible.

But with global warming a likely contributor to the extreme weather we’ve been seeing, there is a broader ethical concern. During the Mississippi River flooding last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway, 30 miles north of New Orleans, for the 10th time since 1932. Three of those openings came before 1973; seven since. A clear pattern is emerging. We’re also seeing more tornadoes than ever, even in places that rarely saw them in the past, like here in the New York area and New England.

Climate change is a political and ethical hot potato. Ethics involves relationships, usually among humans, or between humans and animals. But how we relate to our planet now has enormous implications for future generations. The Torah teaches (Deut 22:8) that we should build a parapet on the roof to protect people from falling, and the rabbis expanded that to include not keeping a rickety ladder or vicious dog in the house (Ketubot 41b). We all have an obligation to keep our homes safe.

The earth is our home. The governments of the world are its owners and we are all its custodians. At this rate it won’t be long before the entire planet becomes one enormous spill zone. So in that sense, yes, the government can be held responsible. And that means all of us.

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