The front line of climate change policy isn’t new proposals for wind energy, mass transit, or the Green New Deal: it’s how we deal with, plan, and pay for catastrophic flooding exacerbated by changing weather patterns.
Take this year’s Midwest flooding, an historic season of rain and overflowing rivers that has impacted more than 200 million people in 25 states. Federal officials have called it “unprecedented,” but it’s just the latest in a tremendous run of record-breaking floods and water-related damage to homes and businesses that has cost the country more than $1 trillion in today’s dollars since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And it’s happening everywhere; a new report estimates urban flooding events have happened every 2-3 days in the U.S. for the last 25 years.
Currently, a constellation of acronyms and programs, most notably the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), flood mapping from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), help homeowners and communities prepare for the impact of hurricanes, excessive rainfall, and flooding, and rebuild after the waters recede. And all are being rethought and reconsidered after a string of historic floods and big storms—Harvey in Houston, Florence in the Carolinas, Michael on the Panhandle, and Maria in Puerto Rico—have made the extreme weather of the past a commonplace occurrence today.
“Mother nature has been cruel over the last 15 years,” says Marion Mollegen McFadden, a former Obama administration HUD official, senior vice president for nonprofit housing organization Enterprise Community Partners, and a proponent of reforming the CDBG program. “At the same time, Congress has been very generous in making funds available for those impacted communities. That’s why we’re seeing a lot more attention paid to how these programs are working.”
As part of a huge effort to update the systems that help the country rebuild from natural disasters, lawmakers and local leaders are asking big questions: how do we balance rebuilding and resilience? How do we get more homeowners to sign up for insurance without making it unduly expensive? And how can we afford to rebuild in an era where a storm like the recent Hurricane Barry, expected to cause up to $900 million in damages according to insurance analyst CoreLogic, isn’t even big enough to qualify as a blockbuster natural disaster anymore?
Flood maps, insurance, and the price of climate risk
Before a massive storm takes place, two long-running federal programs are supposed to help Americans prepare. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a federally guaranteed program to protect homeowners, provides assurance that they’ll have the resources to repair their homes if weather turns toward the worst. For any home with a mortgage backed by the federal government in a 100-year flood plain, a measure of flood risk, participation is mandatory. Flood maps provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which updates them every five years, determine which areas are under threat.
The new era of billion-dollar weather events has quickly exposed the deficiencies in how these programs currently operate.
The NFIP, for example, is both taken for granted, and relied upon too much. Many homeowners ignore the requirement to buy insurance through the NFIP—and the government does little to enforce the mandate. There’s actually been a decrease in the number of flood policies nationwide, according to Insurance Journal. “We have been working for the last couple years to close the insurance gap, but still not near enough people have necessary coverage,” David Maurstad, the current director of the government’s flood insurance program, told reporters during a conference call earlier this summer. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
“We saw that in North Carolina, and we’re seeing that in Omaha: People think it’s just a coastal issue, and it’s not,” says Douglas Quinn, director of the American Policyholder Association, a nonprofit watchdog for the insurance industry, and a proponent of NFIP reform. “There are a lot of people who are at risk of a flood. Something like 90 percent of counties in the US have experienced floods, and the NFIP has done a very poor job of getting people involved.”
However, some homeowners with enough money, knowing there’s a government backstop regardless of the whims of Mother Nature, have built expensive homes in high-risk areas (30,000 properties insured under the program have been labeled “severe repetitive loss properties,” according to U.S. News).
Making matters worse, the FEMA maps used to determine risk are outdated and, like the real estate industry at large, don’t take into account the accelerating risks of climate change. The government has repeatedly failed to invest in properly updating these maps, which has put many existing homes at risk, and led many to develop in areas that are increasingly prone to flooding. In areas of the Midwest that faced a deluge this spring, many areas near overflowing rivers lacked any kind of flood insurance, making rebuilding that much more costly for citizens and communities.
“There are about 40 million Americans that should have flood insurance and don’t,” says Randy Young, CEO of ArcDesign, and an expert in flooding and rebuilding. “The older homes are the real problems, and the real expenses. They’ll stay there until they’re damaged, until someone tears it up to build a new home, or they’re lifted above the floodplain.”
The information gap has inspired scientists from Columbia University, flood modeling firm Fathom, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the research institute Rhodium Group, Rutgers University, the University of California–Berkeley, and the University of Bristol to partner with the non-profit First Street Foundation on a new project to update and make flood risk information public, in response to what they see as dereliction of duty on the part of the government.
“The government has failed to inform the American people about the true risk of flooding be it past, present or future facing,” Matthew Eby, First Street’s executive director, told Insurance Journal. “We will put this otherwise privileged information into the hands of every American, so they are empowered to protect themselves.”
The combination of poor information and a guaranteed payout for homeowners has been costly. The NFIP hasn’t been solvent since 2004, not coincidentally, the year before Hurricane Katrina hit, constantly requiring the government to pay out more than it takes in. According to a 2019 Government Accounting Office report, the program is at high risk, with $20.5 billion in debt as of last September. It’s become such a political football that its routinely been funded via short-term fixes over the last decade, a dozen times in less than two years; a recent four-month extension, passed earlier this year, gives lawmakers a September 30th deadline to reauthorize.
Dueling bills to reform flood insurance
In response to these concerns, FEMA recently released “Risk Rating 2.0,” a new system to gauge risk and recommend insurance purchases, incorporating flood triggers such as heavy precipitation and laying the groundwork to link insurance premiums more closely to risk. CoreLogic flood analyst Tom Larsen told Curbed that by making it easier for those outside of identified flood hazard zones to obtain cheap insurance, these changes will create more resiliency.
“We need more insured survivors,” he says. “That helps them build back more quickly, and helps communities bounce back.”
More up-to-date maps means more awareness of risk, and ideally, more homeowners purchasing insurance through the NFIP. But while more insurance and more protection may seem like a fairly straightforward answer, it isn’t that simple.
By raising insurance rates, the FEMA program may make it unaffordable for middle-class homeowners to live on the coast. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, echoed the complaints of many members of Congress when he blasted the potential rate changes as ”callous,” saying the put a “bull’s-eye” on middle-class Long Island homeowners.
In response, Congress has been debating two proposals to update the NFIP and flood insurance—H.R. 3167, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019, and a competing proposal co-sponsored by New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019 (NFIP Re)—have exposed questions about cost, equity, and the best way to provide more protection for homeowners.
While both push for a five-year reauthorization of the NFIP as well as funding for mitigation and low-income assistance, a sticking point is insurance rates. H.R. 3167 would allow up to 18 percent increases in flood insurance rates annually. While the shift would directly address the risk of coastal living by making it more expensive, according to Young, others see it as a way to price people out.
According to Quinn, middle and working class homeowners, especially those with fixed incomes, will suffer from rising costs, and have trouble selling, with potential buyers scared of the high insurance burdens.
“A lot of people are asset rich and cash poor, they have houses near the water and are living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “I’m moving back into my Sandy-destroyed home this weekend after almost seven years of being displaced because our flood insurance didn’t work the way it was supposed to. I would never want to see another American family go through what my family has endured for the last seven years. For this reason, it is more important than ever that we finally get NFIP reform right.”
That’s why Quinn and other activists have put their weight behind the NFIP Re Bill, which among other things, caps premium increases at 9 percent a year. The cap limits will make it more affordable to bring more homes into the flood insurance program, and the increase in vouchers for low- to middle-income families as well as deadlines for claims processing will ideally help more Americans bounce back more quickly.
Changing how community development happens after hurricanes and floods
Action to change the NFIP and FEMA flood mapping challenges conventional wisdom on how the country prepares for flooding. A concurrent push to change how HUD distributes Community Development Block Grants after storms hit could shift how we rebuild, and factor in resilience.
According to McFadden, the former HUD official and Enterprise senior vice president, the way this program works now is too slow, too unwieldy, and, ultimately, not as helpful to residents, especially low-income Americans. She’s testified about the issue in front of the House Financial Services Committee and is currently working on a bill with the Senate.
First, the program basically starts from scratch every time a disaster hits: every storm requires a new appropriation from the federal government, and every deployment of funds requires re-learning the lessons of the past, since there’s poor coordination between the state and local agencies that ultimately disperse these funds.
While CDBG-DR funding is one of the biggest sources of rebuilding aid, homeowners can also draw support from a variety of federal agencies, including the small business association and FEMA. The delays in disbursement, the constellation of different agencies offering different funding sources, and delays that require families to live in temporary housing, ultimately delay recovery and rebuilding and require even more federal funds. During ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy, which hit in 2012, homeowners and advocates repeatedly said delays in receiving money and learning about new building standards left them in limbo.
“People try and piece it together with money from FEMA and finding a room in a hotel or rental apartment,” she says. “Then there’s this big X factor around will the apartment be reimbursed, will you need to move somewhere else, what kind of assistance will be available next? There’s uncertainty, and the human cost is high. The longer someone is out of a home, the more expensive it gets. Damage that compounds on someone’s house. The mold becomes more prevalent, damage that could have been cheaper to fix had we gotten in there quicker.”
McFadden is pushing for a more efficient program, one that’s permanently funded and doesn’t require multiple appropriations. Homeowners should also be presented with a single, common application for disaster relief, one that allows them to apply simultaneously for all federal aid.
Especially after the last decade’s run of billion-dollar disasters, HUD’s CDBG program should be always activated and better coordinated to funds get where they need to go more quickly. For instance, McFadden says HUD doesn’t ask for public feedback and public comments for CDBG funding, an invaluable way for many public programs to solicit research and improve efficiency.
“It’s time to treat it as a permanent source of funding, and answer the big policy issues one time,” she says. “Let’s wrestle with them and have the benefit of having the funds reach people, instead of the months and years of potential delay.
These programs also don’t reach the most needy in areas hit by flooding. McFadden wants new CDBG guidelines to factor in recipient income, and go to those most in need of assistance, who may not have the personal resources to start rebuilding. Right now, the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which was recently introduced in the Senate, would permanently authorize the program and maintain that at least 70 percent of CDBG-DR funds benefit low- and moderate-income households.
“We’re calling on Congress to strengthen the guardrails and make sure the funding gets to those who need it most,” she says.
Building a more resilient recovery program
Ultimately, these reformers want to make our flood and disaster recovery system more efficient. And they don’t believe there’s time to waste. Delays mean more money gets spent inefficiently, and isn’t being used to bolster resilience, such as building better defenses and restoring natural coastlines to absorb storm surge. Every dollar spent on mitigation saves $4 to $6 in disaster recovery spending, and while many of the current reform proposals suggest boosting mitigation funding, it’s not at the levels needed to truly address the scope of the problem.
“I see a sea change in Congress, and now leadership, in issues around preparing communities for changing weather patterns,” says McFadden.
Post Hurricane Sandy, the Obama Administration had begun to prioritize resiliency, via the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, and resilience and mitigation are now baked into some federal programs. In 2018, as part of a record-setting of $28 billion worth of CDBG-DR funding to hard-hit areas around the country, mitigation programs received $16 billion, the first time such programs were supported by these grants.
But ultimately, much more is needed. As more communities begin the painful process of rebuilding after the last round of mega-storms, it’ll become more apparent that our reaction to floods, and the impacts of climate change, need to be rethought and reconsidered.
“The areas hit by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, they’re just beginning to understand these issues right now,” says Quinn. “They don’t understand how pervasive the problem is just yet.”