Last year, hurricane and tropical storm-related flooding cost the National Flood Insurance Program more than $8 billion. Simply put, the program can’t take another hit like that.
But on Tuesday, Congress passed a stopgap measure to fund the NFIP for another four months to prevent it from lapsing. It’s the seventh time lawmakers have done so in roughly the past year.
By extending the NFIP without making major structural reforms, legislators kicked the can down the road — conveniently until just after the midterm elections — on a critical task that will have tremendous ramifications on the affordability and quality of life of the Charleston area.
“As currently structured, the NFIP cannot handle catastrophic losses like those caused by the devastating hurricanes in 2017,” explained FEMA Administrator Brock Long in a statement to Congress last month.
The program insures at-risk homes at reasonable prices as long as they meet certain standards to help keep them safe. Indeed, that’s the main reason the program was founded — to help insure homeowners when private sector insurers wouldn’t or couldn’t take the risk.
Private sector insurers recognized the obvious difficulty of profitably insuring a home that was likely to flood on multiple occasions. Premiums would have to be astronomical or insurers would quickly go bankrupt.
The federal government more or less ignored that basic math, however. Not surprisingly, the NFIP is bankrupt. It loses more than $1 billion per year on average and is at least $20 billion in debt.
One solution would be to simply raise the cost of flood insurance. But increasing premiums to a fiscally sustainable level would devastate low- and middle-income families, not to mention making it much more difficult to sell properties in flood zones.
A better solution would be to shift the focus of the program from repairing flood-prone homes to buying them out and tearing them down or raising them by several few feet.
The NFIP spends far more money repairing flooded homes than it spends buying them out or investing in flood mitigation.
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the NFIP pumped more than $5 billion into repairing 30,000 properties that flooded five or more times, at a cost about 30 percent higher than the average value of the homes in question. That’s an obvious waste of money.
In Charleston, city officials are still working with FEMA to complete the buyout of a few dozen homes in West Ashley, which will then be razed. But it has been a frustratingly long process, and more homeowners will likely need help down the road.
The buyout process needs to be streamlined.
Even more importantly, development in the area needs to recognize an increasing threat from sea level rise and stronger storms. Old rules are clearly not sufficient. It is irresponsible to continue to add to the NFIP’s woes. And it is unconscionable to continue putting homeowners, their belongings and their livelihoods at risk.
Congress has four more months to change the way NFIP works and use it to help build safer, more resilient communities.
Unfortunately, for some, it may be too late.