Losing Ground: Severe Repetitive Flooding in the United States

September 15, 2020

Every year, more and more Americans find their homes underwater and their lives upended by flooding. For many, this has become a yearly occurrence. As climate change continues to raise sea levels and drive increases in extreme weather, areas vulnerable to flooding are expanding rapidly and could cover 45 percent more ground by 2100 than they do today. Meanwhile, people continue to build in risky areas, often without considering how conditions may change over a building’s lifetime.

There are many ways that repeatedly flooded homes can be made safer from flooding, but the federal government’s efforts are not keeping pace with increasing flood risk. The result is a steadily growing number of properties that flood over and over again, resulting in disrupted lives and damaged homes. In particular, low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of flooding impacts and have the least access to the resources and support needed to reduce those impacts.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968 to provide affordable insurance against flood risk. Since then, nearly 37,000 properties have met the criteria to become what the program refers to as Severe Repetitive Loss Properties, or SRLPs. These properties, the most flood-prone structures insured under the NFIP, have flooded about five times each, on average.

Steps should be taken to mitigate flood risk for the occupants of these properties, such as elevating the buildings or helping the residents relocate; funding for such steps might come from federal grants, state or local programs, or, sometimes, from NFIP coverage. However, fewer than one-third of those homes have received assistance for reducing flood risk. And as flooding increases each year, the number of SRLPs only grows.

Even more concerning is the number of SRLPs that are no longer insured under the NFIP—including properties that have not yet received any flood mitigation assistance. These properties likely still face high flood risk, but the residents no longer have a safety net to help them recover, and they are no longer included in NFIP statistics. As of May 2018, more SRLPs had become uninsured than had their flood risk mitigated via elevations, buyouts, or other methods. This can artificially deflate the “official” number of SRLPs, creating the appearance that government mitigation efforts have been more effective (or that fewer properties are awaiting mitigation) than is actually the case.

It is painfully clear that the federal government is failing to protect current homeowners in flood-prone areas, and climate change will only increase the number of repeatedly flooded properties. Between 2009 and 2018, the NFIP paid an average of $3.2 billion per year to cover flood-related losses. To avoid even higher losses—not to mention protecting the safety and health of millions of households—the nation must do better at addressing flood risk.

Severe Repetitive Loss Data

The first step in addressing flood risk is understanding the current scope of the problem. However, data on flooding can be surprisingly hard to find. Until now, there have been no publicly accessible data showing where SRLPs are located and how many have received mitigation assistance.

NRDC obtained data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on all SRLPs in the United States as of May 31, 2018. The Losing Ground dashboard shows the number of SRLPs in each state and county, as well as trends in SRLPs over time: how many properties became SRLPs, how many were mitigated, and how many dropped insurance without mitigation.

Severe Repetitive Flooding

Use the filters at the top of the dashboard to select your state or county, or click the triangle icon to zoom and pan around the map. The pie charts on the right show the relative age of the SRLPs in the selected location (whether they predate or postdate local flood maps—in other words, whether they were subject to floodplain management regulations when they were built) and how FEMA has categorized their flood risk. The graphs below the map show the timeline of all flood insurance claims in the area, compared with the timeline of new, mitigated, and uninsured SRLPs.

For more information on the data and the dashboard, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

Download FEMA’s SRLP data here. The dashboard also includes a public dataset of all NFIP claims, available on FEMA’s website at https://www.fema.gov/openfema-data-page/fima-nfip-redacted-claims.

What Can We Do About Repetitive Flooding?

Like all problems linked to climate change, we need multiple solutions to address the issue of repeatedly flooded properties.

Federal, state, and local governments should increase the amount of funding available for flood risk mitigation. They should also streamline application processes, reduce waiting times for grants, emphasize action before the next disaster strikes, and use new, holistic approaches. Funding should prioritize benefits for communities of color and other communities left behind by our nation’s disaster response and recovery programs. A September 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General points out several improvements that FEMA must make to provide more timely and equitable mitigation assistance.

In addition, we need to comprehensively reform the NFIP. Currently the program relies on outdated maps and rules that don’t incorporate climate change. Congress must update the NFIP to accurately reflect flood risk, make data more accessible, and enforce stronger codes and standards. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office pointed out in a recent report, increasing mitigation alone won’t solve the problem if the NFIP continues to incentivize risky actions.

We also need to stop building in harm’s way. About one in seven SRLPs were built after the publication of local flood maps—when we should have known better. And new development in risky areas is still increasing, with population growing faster in floodplains than elsewhere. The best way to stop repeated flooding is to not let it start in the first place.