Few in the Charleston area will be surprised that flooding in South Carolina has been expensive for the National Flood Insurance Program. The state has racked up $920 million in claims over the past 40 years, according to data released last week.
But this is the first time that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the program, has made public specific data about where flood claims have been made and how much they cost.
Certainly, this information will prove tremendously useful in making decisions about flood risk in South Carolina and especially in the Charleston region. The tri-county area accounted for more than a third of the state’s NFIP tab.
It’s worth noting that some of that damage might have been prevented or mitigated had the data been made public years ago.
The FEMA records list totals only by ZIP code, which isn’t nearly detailed enough to make individual home-buying decisions. But it ought to prove valuable in determining broader city and state policy.
Still, too much information remains secret.
Homebuyers can’t easily access records of flood damage due to federal privacy laws. That leaves them to rely on the owner’s disclosure, even if the owner might not have lived at the house long enough to know the full history.
Obviously, some cases can end up being frustratingly costly and potentially dangerous.
A reform bill in Congress would remedy that situation and make it easier for the government to buy out homes that flood repeatedly, which is a far more cost-effective and humane solution than simply rebuilding a vulnerable residence.
Implementing both components simultaneously is important.
Releasing flood records would make some homes difficult to sell and in some cases could render them effectively worthless. That ultimately could stop a cycle of destruction and heartache, but homeowners will need options to either reduce their flood risk to an acceptable level or tear down their homes and replace them with green space.
Charleston has been proactive on both fronts by attempting to increase the minimum elevation of homes in flood plains and by pursuing federal help to buy out a few dozen properties in a flood-prone part of West Ashley.
Changes in federal rules would complement local efforts.
The congressional reform effort should be a top priority, especially given that federal lawmakers once again shirked their responsibility to make desperately needed changes to the NFIP last month. Instead, they simply funded it through September despite the fact that it is at least $20 billion in debt and bleeding money.
As sea levels rise and storms grow stronger, the NFIP and federal disaster programs more broadly will need to shift strategies from recovery to resilience. Better, more transparent data will help, but only if the floods of the past are used to build a safer, more sustainable future.