James Howard Kunstler – Hurricane Irma brings involuntary urban renewal to Florida
Further proof, as if more were needed, that God is rather cross with the world’s number one exceptional nation: Hurricane Irma is tracking for a direct hit on Disney World. In the immortal words of the Talking Heads: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.
Houston is still soggy and punch-drunk, with a fantastic explosion of breeding mosquitoes, and otherwise it’s not even in the news anymore. This week, the cable networks had their scant crews of reporters scuttling around Florida, asking the people here and there about their feelings. “What’s gonna happen is gonna happen….” I think I heard that one about sixty times, and there’s actually no disputing the truth of it.
For the moment, though (Friday morning), it’s a little hard to calculate the effect of a complete scrape-off, wash, and rinse of the state of Florida vis-à-vis the ongoing viability of the US economy. There’s going to be a big hole with dollars rushing into it and that will likely prompt the combined powers of the US Treasury, congress, and the Federal Reserve to materialize tens of billions of new dollars. Overnight the DXY plunged to a new low for the year.
Am I the only observer wondering if Irma may be a fatal blow to the banking system? The mind reels at the insurance implications of what’s about to happen. Urgent obligations triggered by an event of this scale can’t possibly be serviced. Look for it to snap the chain of counterparty leverage that has been propping up the banks, insurers, and pension funds on mere promises for years on end. Finance, both private and public, has been feeding off unreality since well before the tremor of 2008. The destruction of Florida (and whatever else stands in the way up the line) will be as real as it gets.
You’ve heard the old argument, I’m sure, that a natural disaster turns out to be a boon for the economy because so many people are employed fixing the damage. It’s not true, of course. Replacing things of value that have been destroyed with new things is just another version of the old Polish Blanket Gag: guy wants to make his blanket longer, so he cuts a foot off the top and sews it onto the bottom. The capital expended has to come from something and somewhere, and in this case it probably represents the much talked-about necessary infrastructure spending that is badly needed for bridges, roads, water and sewer systems, et cetera, in all the other parts of the USA that haven’t been hit by storms. Instead, these places and the things in them will quietly inch closer to criticality without drawing much notice.
The second major weather disaster this year may not be enough to induce holdouts to reconsider the issue of climate change, but it ought to provoke some questioning about the development pattern known as suburban
sprawl, which even in its pristine form can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Surely there will be some debate as to whether Florida, or at least parts of it, gets rebuilt at all. The wilderness of strip malls, housing subdivisions, and condo clusters deployed along the seemingly endless six-lane highways that accumulated in the post-war orgy of development was an affront to human nature, if not to a deity, if one exists. There are much better ways to built towns and we know how to do it. Ask the shnooks who paid a hundred bucks to walk down Disney’s Main Street the week before last.
Apart from all that remains the personal tragedy that awaits, the losses of many lifetimes of work invested in things of value, of homes, of meaning, and of life itself. Many people who evacuated will return to… nothing, and perhaps many of them will not want to stay in such a fragile place. But the America they roam into in search of a place to re-settle is going to be a more fragile place, too. A week or so after Irma has gone away, the ill-feeling that heaps this country like a swamp fever will still be there, driving the new American madness into precincts yet unknown.