By Froma Harrop

When the Mayflower landed in 1620, the first thing the Pilgrims did was get away from the beach. “We came to the conclusion, by most voices, to set on the mainland,” wrote one of the leaders, “on the first place, on a high ground.” Historians dispute whether that place was Burial Hill or Watson Hill in what is now Plymouth, Mass. That it was a hill, no one doubts.

The Pilgrim Fathers did not fathom a time when they could build their houses right on the water and then, when a gale knocked them down, taxpayers in Omaha would pay for new ones. But that’s become the norm along the Eastern seaboard, Gulf Coast and various flood-prone riverfronts. Thanks to the National Flood Insurance Program, people can plop a mansion on a sand dune, and the taxpayers will protect their investment.

An architectural historian could easily place the start of the program at 1968. Before then, coastal houses were perched at safe elevations, away from the angry surf. And no one built luxury homes on the Mississippi floodplains.

The program is supposed to be self-supporting, but the monster hurricanes of recent years have sunk it $23 billion into the red. And this could be just the beginning. Meteorologists say that we are in a 20- to 40-year cycle of fiercer and more frequent storms. They expect the coming hurricane season, which starts in June, to produce nine hurricanes, five of them Big Ones.

For people who build on floodplains, tapping the flood-insurance program can become a way of life. The Willow River apartment complex, in Salem, N.C., has been flooded seven times since 1977. On each occasion, the taxpayers sent the owners a check, for a grand total of nearly $11 million, according to The Roanoke Times.

J. Robert Hunter used to run the flood-insurance program. He thinks that legislation to overhaul the program, now before the House and Senate, only scratches at the problem. “Neither bill deals with the primary issue, which is that we tell people that they can build in unsafe places and expect the taxpayers to bail them out,” says Hunter, now with the Consumer Federation of America.

The program was originally designed to leave a different impression. It did cover houses built before there were flood maps showing the risks. But it required that new buildings be elevated to the 100-year flood level. What happened was that developers pressured local governments to let them ignore the regulations.

“The program is supposed to kick out communities for not following the rules,” Hunter says. The directors tried to enforce them at first. But when senators or congressmen came around to complain, they gave up.

There is an obvious regional bias in the program. It forces people living high and dry in Colorado and Indiana to subsidize waterfront development in Louisiana and New Jersey. Everyone has weather. It makes no more sense for North Dakotans to rebuild beachfront villas in Boca Raton than for Floridians to pick up heating bills in Fargo.

Nevertheless, the sense of entitlement burns bright in America’s beach resorts. North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole contends that tightening up the flood-insurance program would actually discriminate against people in coastal areas.

Of course, she doesn’t really mean The People, but The Developers. The dirty truth about subsidized flood insurance is that it has degraded the quality of life for ordinary folk. The program unleashed a building boom that threatens the fragile seashore environment. And the wall-to-wall condos have cut off the public’s access to what were once wide-open beaches.

That’s why a lot of people who live in areas that are supposed to benefit from the flood-insurance program really can’t stand it. Not a few of them rub their hands in anticipation of the Big Blow that will clear the development that hogs the beaches and bankrupt the flood-insurance program.

Let’s be calm about this. Before there was flood insurance, lots of people lived in coastal areas and river valleys. They were just careful about where they put their houses. Like the Pilgrims, they settled on high ground.

Really, if insurance companies don’t want to cover houses in flood zones against floods — and who can blame them? why should the taxpayers be left holding the bag?