Let’s Minimize Future Flood Damage and Reduce Costly Rebuilding!

We naturally jump at opportunities to help those caught in disasters, but we are terrible at learning from the disaster and taking steps to prevent more of the same. After Katrina, Mathew, Sandy and Harvey, we can no longer ignore the relationship between climate change and extreme weather with the increasing likelihood of more and more severe flooding. The larger questions of local government responsibility for disaster planning and broader environmental stewardship will be debated for a long time. One important program that needs reforming is on the Congressional calendar this month. Now is the time to reduce future loss of life and property by re-writing the National Flood Insurance Program policies to be sustainable, science-based and designed to save taxpayers money.

Harvey, like recent Gulf Coast storms, highlights the problems with the National Flood Insurance Program, which was intended to limit building in flood-prone areas but instead, wound up encouraging vast development in areas too risky for private insurers to support. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) began in 1968 as private flood insurance became more expensive and less available to homeowners in flood-prone areas. It is set to expire on September 30. 

The NFIP offers insurance to homeowners, renters and businesses in high-risk zones, and asks communities to develop plans to reduce flooding risks.  But flooding risks have changed because of climate change -  out of date flood maps and cheap flood insurance have encouraged uncontrolled development along fragile coasts and in other flood-prone areas. The NFIP allowed growth hungry cities to build in areas known to be flood-prone. Even after earlier hurricanes, people rebuilt in those areas and development continued with outdated flood maps because federal insurance covers their losses. Properties that have claimed repeated flood damage were just 1 percent of those insured under the program, but they get 25 to 30 percent of its funding. In one extreme, but not isolated example, a single home in Mississippi flooded 34 times in 32 years and received insurance payouts worth nearly 10 times the home’s value!

NFIP is now $24 billion in debt, largely due to benefits paid out in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These losses will grow as Harvey’s bills come due. The real failure of the program is not its expense but the way it is being used to encourage reckless, unchecked development in areas that can never be made dry or safe.

We need to be compassionate about the losses from Harvey but we have to stop making the same policy mistakes. The United States spends far more responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey than on mitigation of storm risks despite the fact that mitigation has a payback of $4 saved for every $1 invested.  Congress should institute tougher flood-risk mitigation requirements, more realistic premiums, updated FEMA mapping of flood risk areas and better risk modeling. The federal government must stop spending millions of dollars to repair properties that have been repeatedly flooded. The NFIP should require local zoning that protects flood plains and wetlands.

Call To Action

Call your Representatives and Senators who will vote this month to re-authorize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). While the Federal government should help those impacted in Houston, tell them:

  • More flooding is going to occur, but we can reduce the human toll by making sure fewer people build in flood zones. The National Flood Insurance Program should incentivize buybacks of homes in flood zones rather than costly and often repeated rebuilding.

  • Flood zone maps must reflect current conditions and accurate science.  The maps should clearly indicate where development CANNOT occur.

  • Wetlands and other natural buffers to natural disasters must be re-established.

  • Flood insurance premiums must reflect the actual costs associated with rebuilding in dangerous areas and the failure to purchase such insurance must mean that relief funding is not provided for rebuilding. 

If the NFIP cannot be rewritten in order to more fully protect everyone in a world of global warming and increasingly severe weather, then the program should not be reauthorized.