Photo Credit: NASA


For homeowners in flood-prone regions, July means two crucial things: hurricane season is here, and there are only three months left to chart the future of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Bipartisan House and Senate bills are working through committee to extend the NFIP for five years past its current September 30, 2017 end date. The Senate bill boasts support from across the political spectrum, from Republican Marco Rubio of Florida to Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—both representatives of coastal states that could be devastated by major floods. Yet there remains dissent on how best to provide protection to at-risk communities in flood-prone areas. Generally, Republicans argue federalized flood insurance policies place a burden on taxpayers, while Democrats believe there should be a federal response to rescue a region in crisis.


At the core of this issue are the interests of four major groups: the individual home- and business owners living and working in flood-prone areas; the taxpayers subsidizing the development and occupancy of these areas; the local, regional, and state governments regulating the development of—and receiving tax revenue from—these communities; and the ecosystems that define these places.


NFIP in its current form reduces risk to communities in projected floodplains by establishing minimum standards for land use and construction and by providing an immediate safety net to individual home- and business owners. However, the program’s minimum standards have proven inadequate in reducing flood risk over the past few years, and practically guarantee an increase in future damages, particularly in a future of increased sea level rise and climate uncertainty.


With an increase in misleadingly-named 100- or 1,000-year weather events—like the recent floods in South Carolina and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy—and the daily challenges of living in the path of rising seas, our legislators are faced with the uncomfortable reality that somehow, someone needs to pay climate change damages. The current crop of NFIP bills have wideranging provisions that would—among other things—reduce premium caps for taxpayers but increase minimum premiums, surcharges, and fees. Under our existing disaster assistance system, any flood damage not covered by the NFIP would become the financial obligation of the federal government or disaster survivors, with some additional help from foundations, charities, and state and local government. 


The proposed changes would ultimately drive communities in floodplains to become safer and more resilient by incentivizing building away from 100-year floodplain projections, offering discounts for retrofitting existing structures, and increasing premiums or revoking policies for structures with more than one flood damage claim. Starting in 2020, according to proposed legislation requirements, new structures built in these zones will not even qualify for NFIP if private flood insurance policies are available to owners.


But in the short-term, these growing pains would be felt acutely by people already living in high-risk flood zones who may not be able to afford to leave their homes or recover from inevitable flood damage. Cities, counties, and states flooded in a megastorm will be stretched thin when trying to restore their own municipal and public infrastructure and may not have the resources or capacity to support private property owners.


As the NFIP is considered for reauthorization, the program will be showered with attention by the media and elected representatives. This attention will likely be framed in terms of resilience; paired with analyses of the mounting social, economic, and environmental costs of the many hurricanes, wildfires, hailstorms, and tornadoes we’ve seen in recent years; and discussed in conjunction with President Obama’s executive order on climate change and executive orders on floodplain and earthquake standards.


All this attention sets the stage for a national discussion about disaster prevention, climate adaptation, and hazard mitigation. This may be the most promising opportunity we’ve had to seriously consider how to reduce the mounting toll taken by forecastable natural disasters. As adaptation professionals, we can harness our passion and energy into big conversations that can shape the world we’re building for future generations. We can join forces with the growing group of individuals concerned about the economic damage caused by climate change-induced disasters to change our country’s course.


Our disaster relief system—NFIP included—does not promote making the responsible choice as it currently stands. NFIP certainly needs alterations if the program is to survive the next five years, but focusing only on the NFIP—a relatively small symptom of a much larger problem—will not produce good public policy. We need to take a clear view of the systems and we need to establish a better understanding of disaster risk reduction. Effective solutions will only come from an honest, holistic examination of the issues with our current federal disaster-relief system and its funding structure. Once we know where and how our system is failing, we can use a multidisciplinary, whole community approach to create real solutions.


As communities focus on this year’s hurricanes, let’s do what we can prepare them for the many future hurricane seasons to come.


ASAP thanks Natural Hazard Mitigation Association President Ed Thomas for his contribution to this article.

Edit (July 5, 2017): This post previously included an error in explaining the financial burden on local governments in flood impacted communities. This has been updated to resolve the mistake.

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