Charleston officials ask residents to give 'em a call when their house floods — and yes, that’s when, not if.
But they probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for everyone.
As The Post and Courier’s Chloe Johnson and Stephen Hobbs reported, the city has undercounted the number of local houses severely damaged by flooding in recent years. Based on Federal Emergency Management Agency documents, the newspaper found five instances where homeowners should have received “substantial damage determination” letters, but didn’t.
The biggest surprise here is that there weren’t more. Because this system is complicated, hard to navigate ... and some people don’t want to be found.
FEMA runs the National Flood Insurance Program, but cities are responsible for identifying homes that repeatedly or substantially flood. And the feds want the city to alert people who have a home in danger of repeated flooding.
Which should qualify as a second notice — the first being the moment water pours into their living room.
The tipping point for the “substantial damage” designation comes when repairs to a home exceed 50 percent of its market value. At that point, the homeowner has to bring the house up to modern building codes — which often includes raising it — or hope they’ll get bought out by the government. But there are no guarantees there. Limited funds and all.
The idea here is to cull homes that chronically flood from the National Flood Insurance Program, which is running a $25 billion deficit. Repairing homes destined to flood again is literally throwing good money after bad.
The problem is identifying these homes. Even with inspectors canvassing neighborhoods after a flood, it’s often hard to see damage from the outside. And FEMA won’t let local governments use claims information to determine substantial determination. Privacy, or some such. In fairness, some of that money goes toward claims that don’t count toward home damage.
So the city has to sniff out substantial damage and hope homeowners will let them in and, best case, furnish them with a contractor’s repair estimate. Otherwise they have to make their own calculations and keep an eye on building permits.
But here’s the rub: A lot of folks, particularly in the aftermath of a storm, don’t pull permits for their repairs — and that includes the five homes Charleston missed.
There are several reasons people might opt against a building permit. They may not know they need one, or simply be in a rush to repair their homes. Understandable.
Some people, however, skip the bureaucracy because they don’t want to spend the money, or don’t want the government knowing their business. Unless they’re trying to get into a government buyout program, why would they?
If the damage to their home is substantial enough, homeowners could potentially have to spend six figures bringing their houses up to code. Raising a house can cost up to $100,000, but flood insurance pays only $30,000.
Anyone who receives a “substantial damage determination” letter also has to immediately take steps to bring their house up to code, or risk losing their insurance. So those letters are akin to getting a really expensive bill in the mail.
In Texas, the Houston Chronicle found that building inspectors and politicians often lowered flood damage estimates to save residents the burden of bringing their homes up to code.
That might help them in the short term, but it’s a recipe for eventual disaster — and more flood insurance program deficits.
Few people want to live in a house that constantly floods, but there are some who fear the cost of major repairs or believe the government will simply take their home (doesn’t work that way). So the city is going to have trouble finding everyone. Help 'em out by calling it in. Then call Congress to fix the flood insurance program.
Congress is due to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program within the next few months. There’s already a proposed amendment to double the amount policyholders can get to raise their house. There should be another amendment making it easier for cities to collect information on flood-damaged properties.
Otherwise taxpayers will keep rebuilding houses that never should have been built in the first place.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.