by Rob Moore
Hurricanes and severe storms have been battering communities across the country, costing the nation billions of dollars in post-disaster relief efforts. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) — set to expire on May 31 — is a critical component of how the nation prepares for and responds to such disasters. For 18 months Congress has kicked the can down the road on flood insurance reform. Before another hurricane season is upon us, Congress must make the reforms that will help families weather the coming storms.
Flood insurance is a big deal in Florida, where FEMA and the NFIP have more than 1.7 million policyholders (35% of all policies nationwide). For Floridians and the nation as a whole, the unfortunate truth is that the NFIP is not designed to help us cope with the new reality of storms like Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, and the many other catastrophic weather events that have hit the nation in recent years.
Congress has no excuse for further delay. The NFIP should be a linchpin in our nation’s strategy for coping with flood disasters, but its current form is a liability. The NFIP not only provides insurance to millions of Americans, but it is also responsible for mapping flood risks, establishing minimum development standards for the nation’s floodplains, and is a primary source of flood risk information. In every aspect, the NFIP is failing to deliver what the nation needs.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that between 2005 and 2014, the federal government appropriated $277 billion for disaster assistance. In 2017 alone, Congress appropriated $120 billion in supplemental funding and more came from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to address three major hurricanes and fires in the Western U.S. We are still adding up the costs from disasters in 2018 and 2019 as Congress dithers about how much disaster assistance to set aside.
As record-breaking storms continue to occur more frequently, the cost continues to increase. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the NFIP, which has slipped deeper into debt, borrowing more than $40 billion from U.S. taxpayers to date. These storms should have primed Congress to take swift and decisive action to reform the broken and indebted NFIP. But instead, Congress has passed 10 short-term extensions since September 2017 without making any of the necessary reforms.
Reforms are needed across the program. Flood maps that guide local development decisions can be years or decades out of date. And, when updated, they fail to account for rising sea levels and larger storms — leaving communities in the dark about where flooding will become more likely in the future. The program’s emphasis on rebuilding in areas where floods will happen again, rather than helping people relocate to high ground, leaves many feeling trapped by the very program they are relying upon to help make them safer.
We should be investing more to reduce communities’ vulnerability to flood disasters. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), every $1 invested in mitigation funding can save the country $6 in post-disaster costs. The savings are even higher for incidents of inland flooding like we have seen in the Midwest. A $7 benefit can be realized for every $1 in invested in efforts like acquiring flood-prone buildings that allow families to move to higher ground and other mitigation actions. The NFIP should place far less emphasis on rebuilding and more emphasis on mitigating flood risks, including helping people move to safer locations.
If approached correctly, the expiration of the NFIP is an opportunity to help Americans lower their risk of flooding and give greater access to information about past flood damages and the potential for flooding in the future.
For 18 months, Congress has failed to make reforms that would give the nation the modern program we need. For now, we are stuck with the program we have: one that hemorrhages billions of dollars to perpetuate a cycle of flooding and rebuilding, leaving families in the dark about the real risks they are living with, and provides communities and property owners with too few options to get out of harm’s way.
Rob Moore is the Director of the Water & Climate Team at the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a member of SmarterSafer.org.