Omigod, a flood is coming. OHHHH it’s here. It’s over, and I don’t know where to begin. Find new place to live. Muck out house. No power, no car, no water. Apply for FEMA help, try to keep job, put kids in new school. Where’s the damn insurance adjuster? March to demand Congress send aid. Yikes! Mold is everywhere! What do I do with this house? What has to be fixed? How much will it cost? How do I get a contractor who is not a crook? Where’s the insurance check? OMG, New flood maps!? Where are they? What do they force me to do? Will the government protect our neighborhood or abandon us? I have to raise the house 10 feet? What am I going to do up there? Where’s that money coming from? Not insurance; still waiting. A loan? Do you know how much I already owe on this place?
Ok, Ok. I don’t know if a flood will drown me tomorrow. I’m rebuilding. New insurance bill. Quadrupled? ARE THEY TRYING TO KILL ME?
Though rebuilding after disasters is always chaotic, increases in premiums for the National Flood Insurance Program have caused people to snap. Rage drove Congress to rush through changes which would limit premium increases.
Premium limits were inevitable, though a terrible idea if they survive long term. They could cost taxpayers billions while in effect encouraging people to build or rebuild on properties in the path of rampaging rivers and storm-driven wave surges. It could considerably retard efforts to adapt communities where floods threaten.
The huge premium increases came after the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act demanded that the program align its premiums with actual risk. Congress had created a federally backed flood-insurance program in the first place because private companies wouldn’t (and won’t) write policies in flood-prone areas. The program was supposed to pay for itself, but went $17 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina. Subsequent disasters have pushed that debt to $24 billion.
The bills in Congress will limit insurance increases to 18 percent annually and ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to devise rules to keep premiums at less than one percent of a home’s value.
Even with quite large coverage gaps, the flood insurance program continues to drain the treasury because it protects the investment of those who buy and build in vulnerable areas. That’s one reason that beachfront McMansions, with pools and tennis courts, have succeeded humble beach shacks along ocean shores. The program has paid repeatedly to rebuild flooded-out properties .
The 2012 reform made higher insurance costs inevitable, yet did Congress or anyone else ever try to determine whether the new premiums were in fact calibrated to risk? If they were, then coverage that annually costs 10 percent of a home’s value (as some policies did) is sending a very strong message: the danger of continued occupancy is very real. In actuarial terms, total destruction is nigh.
Should taxpayers subsidize people who take such risks? Absolutely not. On the other hand, long-overdue changes in the flood program shouldn’t financially destroy people by making their homes instantly both unaffordable and unsellable.
Protecting flood-vulnerable communities from future storms can lower risk, and designers and researchers are impressively innovating on that front. Unfortunately, one look at updated flood maps shows that vast swaths of ocean shoreline cannot be protected — at least at reasonable cost and realistically taking into account sea-level rise. River bottomlands are also at increased risk, thanks to faster mountain snow melts and more violent weather.
This means we have to help people move away from danger — physically relocating not a house here and there, but entire neighborhoods and communities. It’s an idea abhorred by many (by no means all) people who have enjoyed beaches and waterfronts exactly as they are. It’s also very hard to pull off, but in too many places, we have no choice.
Managed Retreat is one of several terms of art. The time to “manage” is when risk is recognized, but before disaster makes property valueless and homes uninhabitable. But we need to clear a path for communities to proactively plan to migrate.
Government could condemn vulnerable properties. That’s what’s been done in the past on a very small scale. It’s a process that’s prohibitively expensive and often politically explosive.
A citizen-driven planning process is a much better way to looks at all the ways a community can become flood resistant — either through shoreline protections, flood-resistant design, or some combination of both. Within reason, governments should help communities protect themselves. Communities that take the responsibility to plan for disasters and act to minimize their effects could be rewarded with eligibility for subsidized insurance under the National Flood Protection Program.
When no reasonable protection is enough (as is likely with the Sandy-bludgeoned New Jersey barrier island pictured), communities must be strongly encouraged to move (by denying government backed insurance, among other actions, to laggards). Several existing land-use tools, linked to grants, loans, tax breaks, and infrastructure investments, can be repurposed to help.
- A land trust could allow the sale of at-risk property to a conservation group or government agency. The former owner could rent until conditions become untenable.
- Government can enable transfers of development rights from the vulnerable site to a new setting where additional density or other benefits can be created to reduce value lost when relocation becomes necessary.
- Communities can set aside land at a safe remove for future use. This land bank can then become a receiving site for the community once conditions become dire.
- Communities can engage in land readjustment, a tactic with a long history in places like Holland, where adapting to flooding has been a national priority for centuries. Property lines are dissolved, the community is redesigned to be less vulnerable and more amenable and efficient. Then new property lines are drawn to proportionally reflect the value contributed by each owner.
None of these techniques are simple (for more, see my book The Agile City), yet they are all superior to awaiting a disaster then trying to sort out a future when people are under maximum emotional and financial distress.
The insurance-limit legislation will inevitably have to be revisited. The cost of insurance must ultimately match risk, because taxpayers will not bail out owners indefinitely. Putting those owners in charge of determining their own future should make inevitable retreat at least “managed,” and not horrifyingly chaotic and costly.