Editorial: Reform flood insurance program

  • A man walks through floodwater inside his home on Monday near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in Houston. AP

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Congress reconvened on Monday with another, perhaps more powerful hurricane than Harvey bearing down on Puerto Rico and the Florida coast. The badly riven body must address a host of ills and a handful of opportunities in quick order. None are more pressing than providing billions of dollars in federal aid to rebuild Houston and other Texas communities still drowning under last month’s unprecedented deluge.

Congress must also reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program due to expire at the end of this month. In the short term it has no choice but to extend it. In the long run, however, the program should not be reauthorized unless serious reforms are made. The current system, in place since the 1960s and now $23 billion in debt, wastes money, puts lives needlessly at risk, damages the environment and guarantees ever bigger losses.

Why? Because by using taxpayer money to repeatedly rebuild structures that are doomed to flood again and again, the program encourages development in places that are an invitation to disaster – barrier islands, flood plains, bottom lands and shorelines a few feet above sea level.

Houston, the only major U.S. city that lacks zoning laws, is sinking as more and more groundwater is pumped from beneath it while sea levels are rising. According to a column in USA Today, the flood insurance program has paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in the past 18 years.

According to the Washington Post, taxpayers have paid to rebuild a home near Baton Rouge, La., valued at $56,000 40 times for a total cost of more than $428,000. A Mississippi home was inundated 32 times in 34 years. Rebuilding costs topped $660,000. That’s madness. It would cost far less if the Federal Emergency Management Agency and flood insurance program bought homes at high risk of flooding and demolished them.

The rates charged by the flood insurance program should reflect the risk each structure presents with lower rates for property owners and municipalities that take steps to mitigate that risk.

According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent to make structures more disaster resistant saves $4 in rebuilding costs.

The impact of disasters can be reduced by elevating homes, restoring marshes and wetlands that slow and absorb floodwaters, and minimizing paved surfaces. Rates should be lowered when communities adopt zoning and building codes that minimize damage from high winds, water, or, as is happening across the West again this year, wildfires.

Congress passed a series of common-sense reforms and adjusted the flood insurance program’s rates a bit to reflect risk five years ago. It soon undid most of them when property owners screamed about the loss of cheap flood insurance that no private insurer would consider offering at an affordable price.

Lawmakers must not give in this time.

The price of rebuilding the Houston area must be paid, and more promptly than in previous disasters. But climate change means rising seas, wilder, more destructive weather and, if nothing changes, ever bigger bills to reimburse people who willingly live in paths of predictable disaster.

It’s time to say “enough is enough.”