New Poll Finds Widespread Support for Reforming National Flood Insurance

Residential flooding in Wisconsin / FEMA Photo, Walt Jennings

In a national survey of likely voters, there was widespread support for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which some 22,000 communities, covering more than 5 million homes, rely on for basic flood insurance. Of those polled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, some 53 percent said they had been impacted by flooding — either their home or a family member’s, or their place of work, or their community’s infrastructure had been damaged.

In a briefing, Laura Lightbody, project director for flood prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said flooding is the “most common and costly natural disaster.” She explained how since 1980, the number of major flood events per year has only increased, and more now cause $1 billion in damages. In total since 1980, flooding has caused more than $260 billion in damages to homes and infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “the risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

In return for agreeing to regulate land-use in a flood-prone community, NFIP cover the homeowners in that community up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for personal possessions. Private flood protection is often used to supplement this basic insurance, which is subsidized and costs far less than would comparable baseline private insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina and then later Sandy, NFIP fell into $25 billion in debt. NFIP, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is up for re-authorization on Capitol Hill. There are new calls to reform the program, as flooding damages will only increase with climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers NFIP a “high-risk program” because it’s essentially financially unsustainable. While Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2011 to “help strengthen the financial solvency of the program, including phasing out almost all discounted insurance premiums (for example, subsidized premiums),” just three years later, it enacted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (HFIAA), which reinstated “certain premium subsidies and slowed down certain premium rate increases that had been included in the Biggert-Waters Act.”

The GAO writes: “Aspects of HFIAA were intended to address affordability concerns for certain property owners, but may also increase NFIP’s long-term financial burden on taxpayers.” As NFIP subsidizes communities at high risk of flooding and, in turn, incurs losses, it then borrows from the U.S. Treasury, passing the costs elsewhere.

Some critics of the current subsidized approach argues it encourages development in vulnerable areas. Others argue homes affected by continuous flooding are more often those of the poor and elderly, so raising federal insurance rates too high could mean forcing out whole swaths of communities. And still others argue FEMA, which designates the flood maps that NFIP bases its rates on, has re-mapped higher-risk areas as low-risk to avoid community backlash, but has in turn created more risk because people think they are living in a low-risk area.

Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned Bill McInturff and Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies to poll a representative sample of some 1,000 voters, and found support for the following reforms:

81 percent of likely voters support a “single, national standard to ensure that potential home buyers are aware of whether or not a property has flooded repeatedly, which could mean being required to purchase flood insurance.” Currently, there is no such national standard. But Weigel indicated there is precedent for one: homeowners are now required to let potential home buyers know about higher risks of lead paint in older homes.

82 percent are for requiring the federal government to only build resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas. Any new or rebuilt infrastructure located in a flood zone should be constructed to better withstand damage. Some 86 percent of those in coastal communities “supported building to a higher, more resilient standard,” said Weigel. Overall, there is widespread support for “flood-ready infrastructure,” which “makes sense to people.”

75 percent would like to relocate homeowners in homes that continuously flood from high-risk areas in order to restore those areas as natural buffers, such as wildlife preserves, beaches, or recreation areas. FEMA would offer these homeowners in those high-risk areas the value of their home at pre-flood rates, so they could purchase a new home in a safer area. FEMA then would work with states and localities to play a role in designating areas for green infrastructure.

64 percent back the idea of requiring communities with more than 50 homes that have continuously flooded to “improve drainage, protect wetlands,” or otherwise prevent flood damage. If they don’t make these improvements, the amount the whole community would pay for insurance would go up. This proposal seems to support using landscape-based solutions to reduce the impacts of persistent flooding, where possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing funds for FEMA, which oversees NFIP, by 11 percent. The New York Times reports: “At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” No word in the blueprint for resilient design funds distributed by the department of housing and urban development (HUD).

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