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Spend Florence aid money wisely

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In this Sept. 17 file photo, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence surround homes in Dillon, S.C.

Damage from Hurricane Florence might have caused South Carolina only about half of what state officials initially estimated. But that money will be misspent if it doesn’t actively help prevent catastrophic flooding and other costly disasters the next time a hurricane takes a swipe at our state.

Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster asked the federal government for $600 million to rebuild homes and infrastructure, and to help farmers and small businesses recover, from the aftermath of Florence, which hit just north of the South Carolina-North Carolina border in September.

As much of that money as possible must be used to raise homes to safe heights to prevent future flooding or buy them out and help owners move to higher ground. Some of it should also be used to install pumps and repair dams and make roads more resistant to floodwaters.

Otherwise, South Carolina risks a repeat, with additional expense and heartache.

And that’s not a hypothetical situation. Over the years, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has paid out billions of dollars to homeowners with so-called repetitive loss properties, which have flooded on multiple occasions, to help them be built back without making major changes.

In too many cases, the amount of money spent repairing those homes far exceeded their value.

Part of the reason is that the NFIP is fundamentally flawed. According to its own literature, the program is “designed to restore your property to its pre-disaster condition.” In other words, its vulnerable state.

Homeowners are, of course, free to spend their own money making their homes more resilient. But NFIP money becomes available for that purpose only if the damage in a single flood is worth at least half of the property’s pre-flood value or if the property has already flooded at least twice in 10 years.

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That doesn’t make much economic sense. It would almost certainly be cheaper to make homes more flood-proof — even if another flood is unlikely in the near future — rather than building them back the same as before.

The economic incentive only increases given that climate change and sea level rise are likely to increase the number of floods. And economics matter. The NFIP is at least $25 billion in debt, a total that climbs each hurricane season.

Congress has until Friday to reauthorize the NFIP, which lawmakers will almost certainly do without making any changes to the program. That’s prudent enough given the short time span, but its problems have been apparent for many years now.

For too many homeowners in South Carolina, it’s already too late. A few dozen property owners in West Ashley, for example, are still waiting for federal buyouts to be finalized after their homes flooded multiple times in the past several years.

Homeowners in towns that flooded during Florence might soon have their buyouts completed, but not due to September’s storm. Rather, those buyouts started after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as The Post and Courier’s Chloe Johnson reports today.

It’s an unnecessarily long and complex process, and a risky one in particularly vulnerable areas. That shouldn’t be the case.

The NFIP should spend almost all of its money helping people flood-proof their homes or helping them move to higher ground, even if their homes have flooded only once. It’s more humane — and a better use of taxpayer and premium-payer dollars — to be safe than sorry.

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