IN THEIR RESPONSE to Tropical Storm Isabel's fury, Baltimore County officials have waived time-consuming reviews and fees for repair permits. Tax assessors are scouring the east county shoreline, reappraising ruined properties so that owners can get tax refunds.
At first glance, this consumer-friendly response seems admirable. Yet it may be no favor. What good will shortcuts do if they only encourage owners to restore damaged older structures to pre-storm condition without requiring them to be elevated? Surely they will be flooded again when another mighty storm hits the region.
"They should be built up on stilts, they should be elevated," one Baltimore County official acknowledged. "But it's a political question. People suffered so much. It's a hard time."
Local officials, particularly in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, will only risk greater trauma in the future, however, if they fail to take this opportunity to bring older structures into compliance.
Total loss properties, when rebuilt, must meet the latest flood plain requirements. But when the damage amounts to less than 50 percent of fair market value, "We don't have the legal authority, storm or not, to require elevation," said Anne Arundel permit chief Frank Ward.
Until that changes local authorities must use persuasion in such cases.
They should point out that newer structures, built since the 1970s above the 100-year flood level, generally weathered Isabel's ravages with minor damage. By contrast, hundreds of older, low-lying buildings were devastated as Isabel roared through the Chesapeake, producing a lethal combination of high tide, ferocious winds and the highest surge in memory.
Officials in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties say a tougher stand on nonconforming structures would be particularly hard on retirees. Older residents, dependent on fixed incomes, may be able to handle repair bills, but not the stiffer costs involved in bringing those houses up to today's standards.
This empathy is understandable, but misguided. Instead of allowing older shoreline residents to continue living in denial, they ought to be encouraged to think about alternative arrangements less vulnerable to the forces of nature.
Particularly in eastern Baltimore County, Isabel devastated "shore shacks" dating back into the 1930s that were originally built as summer hideaways and only later converted for year-round use. Many of those structures were marginal before the storm; now they are damaged anachronisms.
Rising insurance costs and stricter underwriting standards are likely to force owners of older flood-plain properties to do some serious rethinking in the next few weeks. Local governments ought to persuade those owners to realize that this is the time to take rational measures against preventable future losses.