New York City Illustrates Gaps In Flood Insurance Debate

A new report from my colleagues at NRDC illustrates just how off-the-mark the recent debate in Congress about flood insurance has been. Our elected officials have been focusing all of their time and attention on how they can artificially keep flood insurance costs down — but none of their time or attention on how to prevent the enormous financial and human costs of dealing with a flooded home in the first place. That’s something we need to be dealing with head-on in the face of increasing flood risks as sea levels rise and the climate warms.

Of course, the people flooded during Sandy already took a major financial hit recovering from the storm and the added cost of rising insurance premiums under the National Flood Insurance Program could be especially difficult for many, especially low and middle income families currently live in flood prone areas. NRDC does not take that lightly. But we also know that keeping flood insurance artificially cheap does nothing to address the long-term risks, and help people break out of that cycle. We need solutions that can help people make ends meet, and ultimately help find them places to live that are safer and more resilient to the impacts of climate change and flooding.

To get there, we first need to understand the real risks. It’s the responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide reliable maps of flood zones to help people avoid flood damage from the start. In doing so, FEMA can help more people avoid the devastating costs of a flooded home or business in the first place.

Unfortunately, FEMA’s maps were nearly 30 years out of date when Sandy hit. That led a lot of people having their homes flooded—despite living outside of FEMA’s mapped flood zones—when Hurricane Sandy hit. A new NRDC report out today, Preparing for Climate Change: Lessons Learned for Coastal Cities from Hurricane Sandy, finds that nearly 300,000 people in New York City —in an area 65% larger than predicted—were flooded during Sandy despite living outside FEMA’s danger zone. Because the out-of-date flood maps did not show that people in these areas were at risk of flooding, it’s quite likely that relatively few of those property owners had flood insurance, because they either thought it was unnecessary or they were not required to as a condition of their mortgage (banks typically require flood insurance to be purchased if a property is in the mapped floodplain).

Beyond the financial impacts that flooding saddled people with, the report analyzes the human and public health toll New York City experienced during Sandy as a result of relying on outdated maps. It found that some of the city’s most vulnerable populations were among those unexpectedly hard-hit, including nearly 90,000 people with limited economic means to recover, and more than 59,000 people who were likely to need help to get out of harm’s way (16,000+ children under 5 and 43,000+ people over 65). Facilities providing critical health and public services were also hit even though FEMA had not mapped them in a flood zone, including 80 schools, 28 public housing buildings, and 18 hospitals/nursing homes. If FEMA’s maps had been accurate when Sandy hit, the city may have been able to keep more people out of harm’s way, and better safeguard critical city services and facilities—in addition to helping more people, businesses and the city avoid the enormous costs of unexpected flooding.

Unfortunately, as NRDC’s new report makes clear, FEMA’s preliminarily updated maps—released in December—still fail to account for climate impacts and sea level rise (some areas hit in Sandy still aren’t even on the maps).  NRDC recently filed comments on FEMA’s proposed maps last month, urging the agency to update them to reflect the best available science to provide people with a reliable picture of the real risk.   

This is an important report for people to read, as it reminds everybody that the problems of the National Flood Insurance Program go well beyond the current debate in Washington.  Namely, how do we make the National Flood Insurance Program a key part of the nation’s climate preparedness agenda?

It’s high time we turn the National Flood Insurance Program into a tool for preventing flood risks, rather than prolonging them.  NRDC wants to see three common sense changes to flood insurance.

  1. Accurate information about the current and future risk of flooding. FEMA’s flood maps need to be updated to reflect the current risk of flooding, and also the future risks that climate change brings. 
  2. Flood insurance prices need to be reflective of the flooding risks.  Does that mean we need to eliminate all subsidies for everyone?  No, but it does mean if we continue to provide subsidies it is with the knowledge that ultimately we need to help those policy holders locate to a safer place at some juncture.
  3. Make it easier for people to relocate.  At present, people have to be pretty determined to jump through the extra hoops necessary to get state and federal assistance to relocate.  After a flood, we need to make relocation the most attractive option available. Maybe even make it possible for them to choose to relocate well in advance of a flood, perhaps in exchange for subsidized insurance rates?