Seeking Higher Ground: Climate Smart Solutions to Flooding

Under FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), some of the most flood-prone properties in the country have been repeatedly rebuilt even when it would be less expensive to help homeowners move to higher ground.

NRDC has released Seeking Higher Ground, a groundbreaking report that takes a hard look at the plight of people whose homes are repeatedly flooded and the difficulties they face in acquiring assistance to move somewhere safer.

Under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a federal disaster aid program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), some of the most flood-prone properties in the country have been repeatedly rebuilt even when it would be less expensive to help homeowners move to higher ground. NRDC has proposed an innovative program that would guarantee a homeowner a buyout of their flood-prone home, enabling them to move to a safer location in the aftermath of a flood.

Since 1978, more than 30,000 properties have been flooded so often they’ve been designated “severe repetitive loss properties” (SRLPs) under the NFIP. That’s not a designation any homeowner wants. On average, these properties flooded five times every 2 to 3 years. Some of the most affected properties have flooded more than 30 times. In each case and after every flood, the NFIP paid to rebuild the property at a cost of $5.5 billion.

Today there are thousands of these properties. In the coming decades, our analysis indicates there will be millions of these properties as a result of sea level rise and the impacts of climate change.

FEMA’s current approach to address the problem of homes that are repeatedly flooded is to ensure the owners have coverage under the NFIP and then rebuild their properties—over and over again. While FEMA provides assistance to reduce the risk of flooding, these programs can take years to provide assistance to homeowners. Moreover, they have been woefully underfunded by Congress. For every $100 the nation has spent to rebuild homes through the NFIP, we’ve spent a paltry $1.72 to help people move out of harm’s way.

While many of these homeowners would like to move out of harm’s way, they find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get assistance to do just that. One such person is Olga McKissic, who owns a home in Louisville, Kentucky that’s flooded four times. See the short video below to hear Olga’s story.

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Since she was last flooded in April 2015, she has been trying to secure assistance from FEMA to buy out her home. Sadly, she has been told by local officials that it could take years before that happens, if it happens at all. In the meantime, Olga must hope that her home doesn’t flood again.

“It’s a nightmare to live here with the thought and the anticipation that it is going to flood again,” Olga says. “I don’t want other people to have to go through this.” Sadly, more and more people across the country are finding themselves in Olga’s situation.

The number of people in the same situation as Olga is growing ten times faster than the number of people who receive mitigation assistance and are already repeatedly flooding. With sea level rise, we could have millions of these properties in the coming decades. 

NRDC’s analysis of this problem shows just how much we need to change our approach. We need to switch from a mindset of “flood, rebuild, repeat,” to one in which we offer homeowners timely assistance to move out of harm’s way.

Among our key findings:

  • Since 1978 there have been more than 30,000 SRLPs. These properties represent 0.6 percent of all NFIP policies (5.1 million policies), but a disproportionate 9.6 percent of all flood damages ($57 billion since 1978).
  • The homes of low and moderate income owners are more likely to incur damages that exceed the property’s value. For single family homes worth less than $250,000, the average home is worth $109,882, but suffers $133,923 in total flood damages.
  • In coming decades sea level rise may cause as many as 2.5 million properties to repeatedly flood and the NFIP could pay as much as $447 billion to repeatedly rebuild before they are finally inundated.
  • In many instances, it would be less expensive to help these homeowners relocate to higher ground. Among the 2.5 million properties at risk, as many as 1.6 million cost less than $250,000 and their owners could have their homes purchased for less than the anticipated damages.

Seeking Higher Ground details some of the problems facing the NFIP that Congress needs to address. Congress is currently debating the future of the NFIP and must reauthorize it before the end of September. NRDC is calling on Congress to adopt a series of “climate-smart” reforms to the NFIP that would make the program better able to provide the kind of assistance people need.

  • Through the NFIP, provide homeowners with a guaranteed buyout if they no longer want to rebuild. The first, and sometimes only, assistance provided by the NFIP is to rebuild in the same vulnerable location in the same vulnerable way. That’s a recipe for disaster in far too many cases. For homeowners who want to move out of harm’s way, the NFIP should help, not hinder, them in making that choice.
  • Give owners the right to know about their home’s history of flood damages. Often, people buy a house only to find out later that it is susceptible to flood damage. If previous owners filed an NFIP claim, FEMA has knowledge of that property’s flood history. Homeowners, whether they currently have NFIP coverage, should have a right to this information. Providing the flood history of a property can help homeowners make informed decisions.
  • Make more data on the NFIP publicly available. The public has a right to know where flood damages occur, the cost of those damages, and what communities are doing to reduce their vulnerability to flooding and sea level rise. FEMA should make this information available to decision makers, researchers, community organizations, and the public.
  • Flood maps should show how sea level rise and other effects of climate change will impact future flood risk. Flood maps are used by government officials, developers, and planners to decide where it is safe to build. Without the inclusion of future flood risks, communities cannot make fully-informed, sustainable decisions.
  • Invest in resilience and in reducing our vulnerability to flooding. According to the National Academy of Sciences, more funding should be dedicated to reducing vulnerability to flooding, rather than repeatedly rebuilding.


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