Monday, November 22, 2004

Over and Under

There's a game weekend golfers sometimes play called "over and under." In some locales, poker players have been known to play a card game by the same name. And, so I have been told, there's a lover's bed game by the same name (although it's likely one that is played only in the Blue states.)

My modest point here is that "over" and "under" are prepositions with many very different meanings. A too-easy use of them can obscure meaning rather than inform.

Kimberley Blair had a go at a new version of "Over and Under" in the Sunday Pensacola News Journal for November 21. In a front page article titled 50 percent rule sparks 100 percent confusion she manages to compound the confusion she is writing about rather lessen it. [The link will not work in a few days, owing to the News Journal's fanciful conceit that you'll pay hard earned money for the privilege of reading their older articles.]

Writing about FEMA's "50 percent rule" for flood plain structures, it is to Ms. Blair's credit that in the body of the article she more or less correctly summarizes the rule this way:
If the cost of repairs amounts to more than 50 percent of the pre-disaster value of an existing building, the entire building must be reconstructed to conform to the current Florida Building Code, or what's left of the original structure must be demolished.

If the building is in a hazardous flood zone, is more than 50 percent damaged and does not meet flood zone building requirements, it must be elevated, rebuilt, relocated or demolished.
That's simple enough. In effect, she's saying that for pre-FIRM homeowners if the structure is "over" 50 percent destroyed then you have to rebuild on pilings. "Under" 50 percent and you can remodel what you have.

New confusion is introduced by Blair herself, however, when she uses the same two prepositions to describe the application of the rule in individual situations. This new confusion makes its dramatic entrance in the article's lede, or opening sentence:
Repair work came to a screeching halt at the flood-damaged Villa Venyce home of Britt and Miriam Rowland when they realized some of their neighbors' homes fell under the 50 percent rule. Like "hanging chads" after the 2000 election, the previously obscure 50 percent rule has emerged as a buzz phrase from Hurricane Ivan.

Forget the strained simile about chads. When Blair writes that the neighbors' homes "fell under the 50 percent rule" the casual reader likely will understand her to be saying that the neighbors' homes in some way fell below the 50% benchmark the rule establishes. What she really means to say, surely, is that because of the application of the "50% rule" the neighbors face the possibility of being ordered to tear down their existing structures and rebuild because the structures were more than half destroyed. Or, to put it more simply (in the way "buzzphrases" try to do) storm destruction to each of the neighbors' property was over 50 percent.

Ms. Blair risks compounding the confusion when she repeats the same mistake in a slightly different way while paraphrasing a Santa Rosa county official. Not quoting the official, but summarizing what was supposedly said, Blair writes, "Some people want their homes to fall under the 50 percent rule so they can demolish... ."

Say what? Are there no copy editors left at the Pensacola News Journal? Under the 50% rule?

Well, not exactly. What the official actually was telling Ms. Blair, one suspects, was something like, "People want to know if application of the 50% rule will require their homes to be demolished because the structures are over 50% destroyed." Put that way, Blair's source would have been repeating the same frustration homeowner Rowland expressed: "You talk to five different people about it, and you get five different interpretations."

To be sure, it is not ungrammatical to refer to someone falling "under" the 50 percent rule. In phrasing it that way, however, Ms. Blair is (inadvertently, one hopes) helping to obscure, and not expose, the source of the root "confusion" she is writing about.

The French novelist Anatole France once wrote with heavy irony in The Red Lily--
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Like France's bridge-sleeping ban, the fifty percent rule is a law. It applies to every flood zone structure alike, pre-FIRM and post-FIRM.

In itself the 50% rule isn't all that confusing. It's the uneven, inconsistent, and unfair application of that law by bureaucrats and insurance companies that causes public confusion and injustice.

The issue, then, is not any inherent confusion in the 50% rule, as Ms. Blair's article can be read to imply. After all, everyone is under the same rule. It's the grotesque failure of county government and government-subsidized flood insurance companies to consistently, fairly, and quickly apply and enforce the rule that is the cause of confusion.

Far too many people with severely damaged structures -- including thousands of homes on Pensacola Beach -- have been left in limbo by the arbitrary way the 50% rule is being applied. The particular locution Ms. Blair chose for her article covers up that reality.

1 comment:

Linda L. said...

Nice piece, JB. In fact, I'm just about going nuts over it. What category would you say it falls under?