The nation’s flood insurance program has repeatedly rebuilt some of the most flood-prone properties in the country, unintentionally setting a trap for owners of modest homes who would prefer to move out of harm’s way, according to a new national report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). For every $100 the nation spends to rebuild homes with national flood insurance funds, FEMA spends just $1.72 to better protect people by moving them to safer, less flood-prone land.
NRDC’s “Seeking Higher Ground,” calls on Congress to adopt a series of climate smart reforms, including changing the mindset of “flood, rebuild, repeat,” to buying out homeowners who no longer want to rebuild on a vulnerable property.
“Flood insurance traps homeowners in a situation no one wants to be in: forced to rebuild in a location that will inevitably flood again. It’s time to start helping people move to higher ground, rather than make them wait for the next flood,” said Rob Moore, lead report author and senior policy analyst with NRDC’s Water Program.
Congress is required to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) every five years, with the next deadline at the end of September. The program is nearly $25 billion in debt. NRDC’s analysis found costs will skyrocket as sea level rises due to climate change, repeatedly flooding millions of properties located along the coasts and inland waterways. The way the NFIP currently operates, it will pay hundreds of billions to rebuild these properties multiple times, even if the homeowner would prefer to move to higher ground.
Olga McKissic of Louisville, Kentucky lives in a home that has flooded four times between 1997 and 2015 with as much as 18 to 20 inches of water. [See Olga in this NRDC video.]
“We purchased our home in 1986, thinking it would be a lovely, tranquil place, but it’s a nightmare to live here in anticipation that it’s going to flood again. Flooding put our life on pause. I don’t want other people to go through what we’ve gone through,” said McKissic, who has been waiting for years for FEMA to authorize funding to buy her home before it floods again.
Among the report’s key findings:
- More than 30,000 “severe repetitive loss properties” have been insured through NFIP, according to FEMA data acquired by NRDC through a Freedom of Information Act request. The properties have flooded an average of five times, on average every two to three years and are the most flood prone properties in the program.
- Seventy-five percent of the homes are modest, valued at less than $250,000. While these 30,000 homes represent just 0.6 percent of the 5.1 million properties insured by NFIP, they account for a disproportionate 9.6 percent of all damages paid between 1978 and 2015, totaling $5.5 billion.
- Almost one out of every ten of these properties received insurance claim payments that cumulatively exceeded the value of the structure.
- In coming decades, sea level rise may cause as many as 2.5 million properties to repeatedly flood, which the NFIP could pay as much as $447 billion to repeatedly rebuild before they are finally inundated. Damages to these properties will cost the program $143 billion - $447 billion in claims.
- Among these properties, there are over a half-million and nearly 1.6 million homes that are more modest homes (worth less than $250,000). It would cost $52 billion - $163 billion to buy out all of these properties before they are inundated by sea level rise. NRDC estimates the NFIP will pay out $72 billion - $224 billion to repeatedly rebuild them.
- The top states, ranked by both number of properties and total damages are:
- Louisiana (7,223 properties, $1.22 billion in damages)
- Texas (4,889 properties, $0.96 billion in damages)
- New Jersey (3,246 properties, $0.66 billion in damages)
- New York (1,802 properties, $0.40 billion in damages)
- Florida (1,601 properties, $0.37 billion in damages)
- Missouri (1,526 properties, $0.19 billion in damages)
NRDC recommends Congress reauthorize NFIP with a series of reforms that will better provide the type of assistance a growing number of American homeowners need.
- Through the NFIP, provide homeowners with a guaranteed buyout, if they no longer want to rebuild. For homeowners that want to move out of harm’s way, the NFIP should help, not hinder, that from happening.
- Give owners the right to know about their home’s history of flood damages. Providing the flood history of a property can help homeowners make better 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.
- 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 and 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 rebuilding over and over.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), who is sponsoring legislation to reform the nation’s flood insurance program said, “America’s flood insurance program is under water. Every year, the homes of thousands of families across the nation are flooded over and over again. It’s devastating for these families. It also puts the National Flood Insurance Program in billions of dollars in debt. This report highlights a commonsense fix to help both property owners and the federal government. As Congress considers the upcoming reauthorization of the flood insurance program, it should look to this report’s recommendations.”
- “Seeking Higher Ground” report is available at https://www.nrdc.org/resources/seeking-higher-ground-how-break-cycle-repeated-flooding-climate-smart-flood-insurance
- Video of Olga McKissic and Rob Moore is at https://youtu.be/-FeCkHZBd-M
- A streaming audio replay of this news event is available here: http://www.hastingsgroupmedia.com/NRDC/Climate-Smart-Flood-Insurance-Reforms.mp3
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.