Flooding is the most expensive type of natural disaster in the U.S. Since 1980, inland flood events alone have cost taxpayers approximately $146.5 billion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that, by the end of this century, global mean sea levels are likely to rise at least one foot above levels seen in the year 2000, which has the potential to cause devastating flooding and resulting damage across the U.S., in coastal and inland communities. These statistics highlight the urgency to address flood risk, particularly as extreme weather patterns caused by climate change may increase flood events and the associated consequences.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is a central part of the federal disaster response apparatus. The purpose of the NFIP is to offer affordable insurance coverage to property owners, renters, and businesses, including more than 5 million homeowners nationwide. The NFIP is also intended to encourage communities to adopt and enforce floodplain management regulations. The growing strength of floods and hurricanes is increasingly straining the financial health of the NFIP. Over the past twenty years the program has been hit with major losses from a series of powerful storms, including Hurricane Katrina ($16.3 billion), Hurricane Harvey ($8.9 billion), Superstorm Sandy ($8.8 billion), Hurricane Irene ($1.3 billion), and Hurricane Irma ($1 billion). Unfortunately, the situation has resulted in the NFIP paying out claims at an unsustainable rate, borrowing approximately $40 billion from U.S. taxpayers to date. The 2020 hurricane season has proven to be one of the most active in history; as of November, government scientists had recorded a record 29 named storms.
Because the vast majority of natural disasters in the U.S. stem from floods, hurricanes, and other severe storms, policymakers at all levels of government must work collectively to better prepare for flood risks. Pre-disaster mitigation is a far more cost-effective approach than post-disaster recovery and rebuilding efforts. Additionally, nature-based mitigation efforts, including the restoration of wetlands, dunes, and other coastal barriers, make communities more resilient to increased flood risk.
FEMA and Congress must do more to reform the NFIP. Enhanced and accurate floodplain mapping, for instance, should include projections for future conditions. Floodplain mapping should be updated with greater engineering confidence and property-level elevation information to better understand levels of risk, an essential element in the reform of federal flood policies. Additionally, policymakers should adjust NFIP premiums to reflect accurate levels of risk with means-tested assistance for those who cannot afford actuarial rates; and expand the role of private insurance to close the protection gap and help ensure rates reflect the true risks for disaster-prone communities.
- Prioritize pre-disaster mitigation efforts, including nature-based mitigation.
- Reform the NFIP to ensure premiums reflect accurate levels of risk and expand the role of private insurance.
- Modernize and improve floodplain mapping.
- Impose limitations on new construction inside FEMA floodplains.
- H.R. 1610, the State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund Act, to permit FEMA to provide capitalization grants to states to address flood risks.
- H.R. 5776, the Repeatedly Flooded Communities Preparation Act, to require repeatedly flooded communities to assess continuing risks and develop and implement a plan for flood mitigation.
- H.R. 1666, to allow for private flood insurance coverage, to allow for the consideration of private flood insurance for the purposes of applying continuous coverage to real estate under the NFIP.
- H.R. 8462, the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act, to account for future flood risk and incorporate resiliency and mitigation measures when evaluating federally funded projects.
- H.R. 8616, the Build for Future Disasters Act, to end NFIP subsidies for newly constructed properties in flood-prone areas.