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Federal flood insurance is stressed as South Carolina forces seek reforms

Rosemary Burnett

The stairs to Rosemary Lamb Burnett's home flood three steps high during rains because the home is built in a dip in the street in Mount Pleasant where runoff collects. Bo Petersen/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — Her house sits in a dip on Freeman Street, so when it rains it floods. Rosemary Lamb Burnett can't afford to fix it. She can't afford flood insurance and her home isn't in a flood zone.

That, in a snapshot, is what's wrong with the National Flood Insurance Program — more than $25 billion in debt and not helping the very people the taxpayer-subsidized program was designed to.

For more than 200,000 insured properties across South Carolina, the federal program's woes could soon become a very costly problem. The deadline to re-authorize the program is Sept. 30 and congressional lawmakers have wrestled for months over what to do about it.

Without a re-authorization, the program dies. Anybody who has the insurance loses it — those 200,000 properties in South Carolina, among more than 5 million across the country. They are not just high-dollar beachfront mansions. They also include homeowners in tiny Pee Dee riverfront towns such as previously flood-ravaged Nichols.

It's not widely known the maximum payout under the federal insurance is $250,000 and most often a payment is far less than that. Losing the insurance would hurt far more lower income residents than higher income. And they are less likely to be able to move.

Without the federal money, the cost of private insurance in flood-prone areas would go through the roof, industry leaders say. Banks won't loan money to build in the areas without flood insurance.

The people who live in repeatedly flooding areas make up about 1 percent of the policyholders, but they make up 20-25 percent of the claims, according to the PEW Charitable Trusts, a public policy advocate. Doing away with those repeat claims would be a key to reforming the program.

The notion has created unusual allies among PEW, Sen. Tim Scott-R S.C., and former Charleston mayor Joe Riley who is experienced at dealing with flooding issues from the local level.

PEW worked with Scott on a bill to require flood-prone communities to consider and invest in protections — voluntary homeowner buyouts, better drainage and other infrastructure — or face sanctions. It would provide some federal buy-out money.

The investment is intended to keep the communities from turning to more federal funding to recover. Its provisions largely have been folded into both the Senate and House versions of a flood program long-term re-authorization reform.

But even with Hurricane Harvey shredding properties in Texas, neither version is likely to go anywhere before Sept. 30. The proposed Trump budget would slash the $277 billion budget for disaster relief by $190 million, and days ago the administration rolled back restrictions on building in flood-prone areas.

"Congress is most likely looking at a short-term re-authorization of the NFIP next month. We recognize that even a temporary lapse of the NFIP could be a disaster," said Sean Smith, Scott's spokesman. A short-term re-authorization would include few if any reforms.

Nearly 400 residents in Nichols were flooded out after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and they have struggled to rebuild. They are mostly low-income. Most didn't have federal flood insurance because it was too expensive. To rebuild, they have to get insurance.

The flood-prone Mount Pleasant home of Burnett, 68, was built 160 years ago in a dip in the street that's deeper than she is tall. It's on a foundation three feet off the ground. She's lived there for 40 years but didn't have extensive flooding until after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. She has watched it get worse as the neighborhood around her developed, she said.

Today, she lives in an apartment over a garage out back because the house is infested with black mold. In the 2015 flood, her yard pooled with runoff knee deep. Water sits under her house after it rains. Because the street is a state road, the town and state have batted back and forth whose responsibility it is, she said.

Riley is helping promote other PEW proposals among federal and local lawmakers. The trust wants more local governments to take the lead in protecting properties, approaching the problem with regulations and community solutions that could help towns like Nichols and people like Burnett.

The solutions could include taxing sales or providing tax incentives for owners in flood areas to elevate the property, if not move it, as well as requiring green space and "living" marsh shorelines that absorb floods. The trust also would like to see sellers required to disclose that a property is in a flood zone.

"The (repeated flooding) issue is bi-partisan," Riley said. "It's not about debating the cause of sea level rise. It's just basic, mainstream issues such as safety and fiscal conservation."

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.