Hurricane Harvey Arrives as Flood Insurance Deadline Looms

National Hurricane Center

Hurricane Harvey will strike the Texas coast with gale force winds, life-threatening storm surge, and torrential rainfall. Several coastal counties have rightfully issued evacuation notices, which should be heeded as storm conditions will be severe. Catastrophic flooding is expected as some areas may receive over 30 inches of rain.  

Hopefully, Harvey will not be as destructive as reported, and that people are able to evacuate safely. This storm's predicted intensity must be taken seriously, and the proper aid and support provided to those communities in its path. Fair and equitable recovery is a must as disasters of this potential magnitude can be devastating for the impacted communities. 

Unfortunately, major weather disasters, especially floods, have been increasing in frequency, leaving a significant impact on affected communities. In 2016 alone, the United States experienced 14 Presidentially-declared major flood disasters, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal assistance. And flood disasters are projected to occur more often as climate change raises sea levels and alters precipitation patterns.

Reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) presents a perfect opportunity to strengthen the nation’s resilience to flooding. The NFIP’s current structure is ill-equipped for a future of more extreme flood events. Congress must reform the program to be “climate-smart.” Greater disclosure and transparency of flood risks, more effective and timely relocation assistance, and a continued move toward risk-based rates must be included in any reauthorization of the program.

Greater disclosure and transparency of flood risks are especially meaningful reforms. As flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States, greater disclosure and transparency of flood risks makes sense both from a public safety standpoint and a fiscal standpoint. 

Disclosure of Flood Risk Information Upon Transfer of Property

Currently, two proposals, one in the Senate and one in the House, would require sellers of a house to disclose past flood damages to potential buyers. This proposal would have an impact nationwide as states would be required to enact sufficient flood disclosure laws in order to remain in NFIP.

Many states, like Texas, already have disclosure provisions in place. In Texas, statute requires the seller to provide a disclosure form on whether he/she is aware of previous flooding, if the home is located in the 100-year floodplain, and present flood insurance coverage. The current proposals in the Congress just would ensure there is national consistency.

Availability of Flood Information Upon Request

While laws to disclose flood risks and past flood damages are important, laws like those in Texas do not inform the current owner of past damages.  If a flood did not occur under the previous owner, there may be no disclosure of flood risk. That’s why homeowners should be able to get a full record of all previous flood damages from FEMA. Providing homeowners better access to their property’s flood history could help encourage homeowners to consider purchasing and maintaining flood insurance or undertaking mitigation actions to lower their property’s flood risk. Congressman Sean Duffy has sought to provide homeowners a “right to know” about their property’s past flood insurance claim payments and flood damages through his 21st Century Flood Reform Act.

Public Availability of Program Information

In addition to information for current and prospective owners and renters, information about flood risks must also be more widely available to the public at large. The public has a right to know where flood damages occur, the cost of those damages, and what communities are doing to reduce their residents vulnerability to flooding and sea level rise. FEMA has a wealth of information on community compliance with minimum building codes and standards, repeatedly flooded properties, and efforts that have been undertaken to decrease future flood damages, but very little of this information is available to the public. All of this information should be available to decision makers, researchers, community organizations, and the public. Fortunately, Congressman Duffy also has proposed requiring FEMA create a public, open-data system to share information related to a community or region’s flood risk. Respecting privacy rights, any member of the public would have access to FEMA’s NFIP data, including information on property-specific claims and policy history.

5th Bomb Wing Public Affairs/Photo by Senior Airman Jesse Lopez

Flood risks are increasing for many regions of the United States. As the NFIP is currently $24.6 billion in debt, any reforms must focus on spurring mitigation, in addition to moving the program toward full risk-based rates, to achieve lasting stability for the program.  

The NFIP is set to expire on September 30th. When Congress returns from recess, it will have only 25 days to reauthorize a program that provides flood insurance for 5 million homes in 22,000 communities across the United States. Congress must not only renew the NFIP before it lapses, but the it must reform the program to achieve long-term stability and flood risk management.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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