Hurricane Harvey flooding

Interstate Highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017.


Richard Carson/Reuters 

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the US needs to rethink its flood insurance programs, experts say.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Larry Larson and David Conrad of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, describe how the Great Flood of 1993 in the Upper Midwest briefly focused federal attention on the importance of mitigating flood risks. But that sense of urgency quickly waned, and at-risk communities, including Houston and areas of coastal Florida, largely ignored the need to mitigate flood risks.

“Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. Now, as the federal government prepares to spend billions more cleaning up from catastrophic floods, we’re in danger of doing it again,” they wrote.

Some changes were made after the 1993 floods, but not nearly enough has been done, they claim.

Before the 1993 flood, the federal government would help people rebuild, but it had no program in place to help mitigate the cost of future disasters in the same location, says Larson. After 1993, the government created the Hazard Mitigation Match Program, which includes the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program. Now, communities can send an application to FEMA and the state asking for assistance with either rebuilding homes to better withstand flooding or relocating residents. Larry Larson says the program is cost-effective, returning five dollars in savings for every dollar spent on mitigation.

Policyholders fund the program at $175 million a year and FEMA tries to focus that money on buying out repetitive-loss structures. About 25 to 30 percent of flood claims come from just two percent of policyholders.

In addition to these repetitive-loss structures, Larson says, the biggest floods are happening in states that often do the least to prevent flood damage. “So, we're kind of encouraging bad behavior,” Larson says. “We've got to quit incentivizing poor behavior and, instead, let's incentivize good behavior.”

“We know that after a disaster everybody will get disaster relief,” he continues. “The point of the flood insurance program was to say, 'At least those people at risk are paying a portion of that cost through their premiums.' … [Now] we need to better marry the flood protection standards in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) with the disaster program to say, ‘If you do a better job making sure new development is at less risk of flooding, you'll be getting a better portion of disaster relief.’”

One idea, called the “Disaster Deductible,” emerged during the Obama administration and is still under consideration. This proposal requires every state to pay a deductible before the federal government kicks in federal taxpayer dollars after a disaster. If a state does more to reduce floods in new development and redevelopment, their deductible goes down. If a state is already doing enough, it will have no deductible.

Houston is a prime example of an area that simply did not do enough to mitigate potential damage from flooding, though they had been warned repeatedly about potential problems created by new development, Larson says.

“You can't pave over thousands of acres of what was wetland or pasture area and not have an impact on runoff — because you took all that pervious surface that would soak up water and turned it into an impervious surface where the water simply runs off,” Larson says

Good floodplain maps are the basis for how communities guide development and right now mapping lags far behind, Larson says. The US has about 3.5 million miles of coastline and rivers with floodplains and the NFIP has mapped only about 1.2 million of those miles — and many of those are out of date.

We need to map now and get ahead of development, Larson insists, because new developments are being created in what he calls “cornfields and cow pasture” country, outside urban and suburban areas. Many of these places are in a floodplain but don’t know it because the area has never been mapped. Only later, Larson explains, does FEMA come in and inform home buyers they’ve built too low in a floodplain and need to buy flood insurance.

Elevating structures two feet adds only one to two percent in development costs, Larson says, so if mapping precedes development, some of these problems can be prevented.

According to Larson, a bill currently under consideration in the Senate addresses these issues. It increases aid to victims of flood disasters, so they can afford to rebuild higher and more resiliently, and it dedicates a percentage of the premiums paid into the NFIP to increase and improve mapping of at-risk areas.

Congress must reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set to expire Sept. 30 but has been extended into December.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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