Senate Takes Step Backwards On Floodplains

FEMA-NFIP-climate- map | © AECOM, The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program through 2100

© AECOM from the report The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program through 2100

Floodplains and wetlands are some of the most dynamic and diverse ecosystems on the planet. The interaction of water and land is critical for fish and wildlife, and these areas benefit communities in many, many ways. Unfortunately, as the climate warms, floodplains are under pressure. Sea-level rise threatens coastal areas and increasing storms could bring more rain and more floods to rivers across the nation.

These changes won’t just affect natural floodplains and coasts; homes and businesses will have an increased risk of flooding. In fact, an analysis for FEMA [12MB PDF] showed some startling increases in flood risk projected for the U.S. by 2100 (see map). These drastic increases in flood risk for coastal and river communities mean we have to start adapting and changing the way we pay for and prepare for floods now. It won’t be easy, it won’t be fast and it won’t be cheap- but the consequences of not adapting will surely be disastrous for many communities and the taxpayers.

Last year Congress passed what I consider climate adaptation legislation when they approved a long overdue-and very thoroughly vetted- bill to reform to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (BW-12) addressed some of the ways the NFIP prevents people from adapting to floods:

  • It phased out subsidized rates that encourage development in floodplains and keep the program financially unsound;
  • It streamlined and improved programs that help homeowners adapt to floods;
  • It improved the science and technology used to create flood maps.

While BW-12 didn’t go as far as American Rivers and many of our partners would have liked, it was a big step in the right direction and the final bill was a rare bipartisan and bicameral success story.

Senate backtracks on flood insurance improvements

Flash forward to last week- the Senate voted 67-32 to undo some of the much needed reforms they made just a year and a half ago. In the slow-moving world of legislation that’s fast enough to give you whiplash. So what happened? To understand we need a little background on how the subsidy phase-outs work.

According to FEMA, only 20 percent of flood insurance policies across the country are subsidized and BW-12 didn’t eliminate all subsidies- primary homeowners with no history of flooding and no updates to their flood maps should keep their subsidies indefinitely. What BW-12 did was eliminate subsidies for distinct groups of property owners:

  • Second homes, repeatedly flooded homes, and businesses will see an annual increase of 25% over their existing rate until they reach their true risk rate.
  • Homes in communities that adopt a new Flood Insurance Rate Map will reach true risk rates in five years, increasing by 20% of the true risk rate each year.
  • New homes that were purchased since BW-12 passed will immediately increase to true risk rates.

Almost everyone accepts the phase out for the first group is reasonable. However, homeowners in the second and third categories have been making their displeasure with rate increases heard. And they’re right to be alarmed. It’s not fair that these primary homeowners will have to pay full risk rates much sooner than people with vacation homes.

However, the solution that has been adopted by the Senate is to delay implementing subsidy phase outs indefinitely. Proponents claim it’s only a temporary delay but as we’ve seen is the case with Congress, one delay leads to another, which leads to another. If we start down this road subsidies will never be phased out, the NFIP will remain financially unsound and at risk of not being able to pay out after a flood hits.

There’s a better way

As the Washington Post editorial board declared this week, the House should “hold strong on flood insurance”. The BW-12 reforms are too important to toss aside.

But, we shouldn’t just ignore the realistic financial concerns of homeowners. During Senate debate on S. 1926, Senator Pat Toomey offered an amendment that would have kept subsidy phase outs in place while reducing some of the financial hardship some policy holders are facing. His approach- championed by the diverse SmarterSafer coalition- would have let newly mapped homeowners and new homeowners use the same phase in schedule that vacation homes and businesses currently enjoy.

The House should support this middle-ground, compromise approach. It is the best of both worlds. It eliminates the possibility of immediate, drastic increases while ensuring the subsidy phase outs continue. As a nation we can’t afford to abandon climate adaptation solutions if it they get too hard or too politically difficult. We should assess where we could have done better and make it happen.

One Response to “Senate Takes Step Backwards On Floodplains”

Alison McGillivray

In Ontario, after Hurricane Hazell in the 1950’s, the province was divided into watershed conservation authorities which developed sensible water flood plan zoning and it became impossible to build on the flood plan… Precautionary principle being the most inexpensive way to insure that the human built environment is not damaged by flooding.