Congress Wants to Know Why FEMA Buyouts Take So Long

The steps leading to the destroyed home of a disaster survivor on Kissam Ave. on Staten Island following the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012.

Photo by Christopher Mardorf/FEMA

UPDATE:  The Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act (H.R. 5846) passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 16th. Identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate (S. 2862) by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tim Scott (R-SC).

In the wake of major floods, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) often provides funding to local and state governments to purchase the damaged homes of willing homeowners to help them move out of harm’s way. However, FEMA-backed home buyouts can take years to complete, leaving homeowners caught in limbo worrying whether another flood will strike and waiting to learn if and when they’ll be able to move.

The Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act (H.R. 5846) seeks to determine why flood-prone homeowners must wait years for relocation assistance. Sponsored by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Sean Duffy (R-WI), and Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the bill directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review FEMA’s current buyout efforts and to recommend ways that such assistance could be provided more quickly in the future. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will mark up this legislation on June 27. Identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate (S. 2862) by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tim Scott (R-SC).

This legislation will help reduce the time that repeatedly-flooded homeowners have to wait to receive assistance to move to higher ground. Currently, the lengthy process not only traps families in their flood-prone homes as they await an answer, but also exposes taxpayers to covering the bill for repeatedly rebuilding through the deeply-indebted National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  

Since 1989, FEMA has provided $2.8 billion to local and state governments to help purchase more than 40,000 homes from willing owners and help them move out of areas susceptible to flooding. While homeowners need this critical assistance, it simply takes too long to reach them.

In areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, for example, thousands of people have applied for assistance to relocate. Almost ten months after Harvey made landfall, Harris County finally received $26.5 million from FEMA to begin purchasing some of the damaged homes. Sadly, that delay is typical. Because of the long wait for federal assistance for buyouts, many homeowners who would have gladly taken a buyout rebuilt instead, because financial assistance to rebuild arrives relatively quickly. It’s recently come to light that some homeowners, desperate to escape future floods, are instead selling their homes to real estate speculators. They prefer to sell their home for a fraction of its worth now, rather than opt for the uncertainty of a years-long wait for a FEMA-financed buyout. The result is that properties that could have been purchased and protected as open space will instead be redeveloped and could flood again.  

Making buyouts happen sooner would likely result in a net cost savings to the federal government. NRDC found that more than 30,000 homes have flooded an average of five times. The NFIP has spent $5.5 billion rebuilding these homes after each flood. Most of these homes are worth an average of $110,000 but have already incurred $134,000 in damage, with repairs paid for by the NFIP. It would have been cheaper for the federal government to buy the property and allow homeowners to move to higher ground.

Voluntary buyouts are the only way to permanently eliminate the risk of flood damages. When FEMA provides funding to purchase a flood-prone property, the structure is demolished and the land is preserved as open space. These properties can then be re-purposed for parks, public access to rivers or beaches, or ecological restoration or green infrastructure projects that further reduce flood risks.  

The Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act is intended to help figure out how to make buyouts more widely available, to make them happen much faster, and to do so in a manner that is more beneficial to homeowners. Given that three to six feet of sea level rise could force millions of Americans to relocate, we need to make it far easier for homeowners to get assistance to move out of harm’s way.

NRDC is a vocal supporter of this legislation, as are the following groups (PDF icons2862-hr5846_support_letter.pdf):

  • Association of State Floodplain Managers
  • National Association of Realtors
  • R Street Institute
  • Consumer Mortgage Coalition
  • Enterprise Community Partners
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts
  • American Rivers
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Union of Concerned Scientists

About the Authors

Rob Moore

Senior Policy Analyst, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

A bi-partisan group of Senators and Members of House of Representatives have introduced legislation to determine why it so difficult for repeatedly flooded-homeowners to obtain assistance to move to higher ground. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have teamed up with Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Mark Sandford (R-SC) want the GAO to find out why it takes years for FEMA to buyout flood prone properties from homeowners who want to move out of harm's way. GAO would also make recommendations for how buyouts could be done more quickly and made available to more people -- something the nation needs to do in the face of sea level rise.

Blog Post

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently released a report describing how the federal flood insurance program could be reformed to provide low-income households affordable options for insurance coverage. However, flood insurance does nothing to help a homeowner avoid flooding at the outset

Blog Post

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.

Blog Post

FEMA has proposed allowing owners of homes that have been repeatedly damaged by coastal storms and floods, and that were bought out by taxpayers, to rebuild on the same highly flood-prone land.

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