As New York prepares for flooding, Congress must pitch in

Article By Steve Ellis

Photograph By Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state is preparing for a “worst-case scenario” as water levels rise along Lake Ontario. With flooding predicted to increase in frequency, our nation must consider a rational approach to federal disaster policy that will save taxpayer dollars, protect the environment, and better prepare Americans for the risks they face now and in the future.

The National Flood Insurance Program provides critical flood insurance to more than 5 million properties nationwide. Unfortunately, the outdated NFIP has borrowed nearly $40 billion from taxpayers, making it unsustainable in its current form. Continuing the status quo in the flood program is not only a risky proposition for communities who rely on the program to pay their claims, but it is a terrible practice from a longer-term planning perspective.

Though Congress has passed 10 short-term extensions and is slated to pass another one at the end of the month, it’s clear that meaningful changes must be made to reform the indebted program. Premiums should be allowed to continue the move to real risk-based rates and only provide premium assistance to those who need it on a means-tested basis. Funding mitigation efforts is a sound financial investment with proven results to reduce future disaster costs and reduce policyholders’ rates by reducing their risk. In fact, proactive, preventative mitigation is the most cost-effective investment the NFIP can make.

According to a 2018 report from the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every $1 invested in hazard mitigation, the nation saves $6 in post-disaster response. In the case of riverine flooding, the savings are a $7-to-$1 benefit for proactive mitigation, such as buying out flood-prone buildings to create space and reduce flood risk to other properties.

However, not all mitigation is created equal. Community-wide, nature-based mitigation should be used and encouraged wherever possible. These are practices that protect, restore, and, in some cases, even create natural features or processes that reduce erosion and flood impacts in coastal or riverine floodplains by dissipating floodwaters, capturing sediment and debris, and building land elevation. This approach to mitigation represents a more permanent risk reduction than other more structural tools.

As the expiration of the NFIP approaches, Congress must consider any and all ways to drive immediate investment in mitigation, incentivizing natural infrastructure where appropriate. Congress can do that by requiring FEMA to work with lenders and the Federal Housing Administration to facilitate mitigation loans. They should also advocate for more flexibility in Increased Cost of Compliance mitigation funds so they can be used before a disaster. In addition, a reformed NFIP should require communities to plan for known flood risks and assess community-wide, nature-based mitigation efforts that are cost-effective and that will reduce future flooding.

In particular, FEMA must work to identify “flood hotspots,” which are communities with significant numbers of severe repetitive-loss properties and areas with a significant number of properties at high flood risk. To further prioritize communities for initial investment, FEMA should steer significant funding to vulnerable and poorer communities that are disproportionately impacted by disaster and flooding.

With the state of New York and states across the country at risk of extreme flooding, Congress has no time to waste. The imminent expiration of the NFIP on May 31 is an opportunity to make the necessary reforms to better prepare the nation for the storms to come and save taxpayers from costly losses in the future.

Steve Ellis is the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense and a member of

View on: Crain’s New York