Flood Risks Are Rising Amid Climate Change, But Congress Is Delaying Action

The Biden administration is adding a $2 trillion green jobs and infrastructure plan to the list of climate commitments announced in its first 100 days, but pinpointing who will foot the bill for damage caused by rising seas and more frequent and intense storms remains a taboo topic.

After years of delays prompted by opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike, on April 1, 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was set to announce new flood insurance rates that more accurately reflect risk, in a move deemed “badly needed” by climate resilience analysts.

But in the first major litmus test of the Biden years to gauge lawmakers’ commitment to leverage flood insurance in a way that saves lives and helps communities become more resilient, members of Congress have delayed the decades-overdue changes, again. And that means for the meantime, developers may keep building where they shouldn’t and taxpayers will keep bailing them out when the waters rise.

Floods are the most common disaster in the United States. And the 2020 hurricane season was the busiest to date in the Atlantic — 73 percent more “active” than normal, The Washington Post reported, with a record number of storms breaking ground on U.S. soil, totaling $37 billion in damage. The frequency of what is known as “sunny day” or “high tide” flooding (flooding linked to sea level rise and visible as water bubbling up from storm drains into city streets) is also on the rise. In 2019, the median flood frequency doubled from 2000 levels, up to four days per year. That median is expected to rise to six days this year. By 2050, high tide flooding could reach 75 days annually.

Given the heightened risk that the federal government’s own data reveals, delaying the implementation of a system that takes those numbers into account is like “putting your head in the sand and trying to ignore it,” Carolyn Kousky, executive director of the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told USA Today.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968, primarily because private companies were not interested in insuring floods, as the Center for Public Integrity reports. The program, which backs over 5 million homes and businesses, is administered by FEMA but requires regular congressional approval. And it has gotten repeatedly tied up in partisan politics.

“They’ve been kicking the can for almost two years now,” Jainey Bavishi, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, told the Center for Public Integrity. But the overhaul is actually far more overdue than that, as the risk rating structure that premiums are based on have not been updated since the 1970s.

NFIP collects an estimated $4.6 billion in revenue from policy holders each year, and delivers more than $1.3 trillion in coverage. The government flood insurance program was solvent until Hurricane Katrina, after which time it had to tap into the U.S. Treasury to cover claims. It has since accumulated billions of dollars in debt, a problem made worse by the tendency to bail out the same policy holder repeatedly, rather than funding resilience or relocation efforts outside of a flood-prone area.

In spite of its budgetary woes, NFIP also pays $1.4 billion in subsidies, primarily “to the advantage of wealthy Americans that can afford coastal property,” according to a report by R Street Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization. The subsidy payments effectively shield recipients from covering the true cost associated with paying into a risk pool substantial enough for an insurance company to pay the cost of recovery following a major storm. According to FEMA, just one inch of water can cause $25,000 in damage.

Congress tried to overhaul the program in 2012 by passing legislation that would have eliminated those subsidies, but the attempt to do so was largely overturned two years later.

“The most basic purpose of government going back millennia is to protect its citizenry,” Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan budget-watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Atlantic in 2017. “But here you have a program that is subsidizing people to live and develop in harm’s way.”

Since 2017, NFIP has been temporarily renewed — allowed to continue without a research-backed overhaul — at least 15 times. As Scientific American reports, one reason NFIP is unable to keep up with its claims is that its risk assessment model is based on antiquated flood maps. A 2018 study published in Environmental Research Letters found that an estimated 41 million people in the U.S. actually live in areas prone to serious flooding, whereas FEMA’s maps estimate only 13 million are at risk.

“One of the biggest problems is that no flood map produced by FEMA contemplates a future that looks any different from the past,” Robert Moore, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in 2018.

The flood insurance rate increases scheduled to be announced April 1 are tied to what’s known as Risk Rating 2.0, a new fully revamped system combining United States Geological Survey 3-D elevation data, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration storm surge data and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data sets with catastrophe modeling technology. Implementation of the new rates is now expected October 1, 2021.

In a statement, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer explained the delay in hikes as a protection for “middle-class and working-class families,” who could face dramatic increases in premiums. But under the new approach, 96 percent of households would actually see no change, or an increase of less than $20 per month, according to The New York Times. That leaves 4 percent of households with flood insurance that could see drastic increases of up to 18 percent per year.

The rate hike delay occurred without fanfare, first reported by an anonymous source to The New York Times. At a confirmation hearing for FEMA administrator nominee Deanna Criswell just days later, the NFIP delay was not mentioned once, as disaster researcher Samantha Montano pointed out on Twitter. Montano expressed bewilderment that “just days after Schumer said no to the NFIP changes they didn’t ask Criswell about it.”

At least two other lawmakers besides Schumer have voiced support for the delay: New Jersey Representatives Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-New Jersey) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-New Jersey), who on March 23 wrote a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in support of postponing Risk Rating 2.0. Pascrell and Pallone each accepted $10,000 from the National Association of Realtors in 2020 alone. The trade group has spent millions in lobbying to oppose flood insurance reform, as Politico has reported.

The two representatives previously co-authored a 2019 letter requesting the program be postponed, along with Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), Charlie Crist (D-Florida), David Rouzer (R-North Carolina), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Florida) and Francis Rooney (R-Florida). All signatories of the 2019 letter except Rooney have similarly accepted campaign donations from the National Association of Realtors PAC and/or the National Association of Home Builders PAC.

Ahead of releasing the new Risk Rating 2.0 system, access to the agency’s risk assessment is not publicly available. Based on modeling by Brooklyn-based research group First Street Foundation data, which may provide the closest working estimate of what flood insurance hikes could entail, there exists great variation within a given constituency. In Pascrell’s district, residents of Little Ferry, where the median household income is $61,000, could see flood insurance premiums shrink by 71 percent; while residents of Tenafly, where the median household income is $169,000, could see premiums increase by 48 percent.

Representatives Pascrell and Pallone have pointed to affordability concerns as their primary reason for advocating to delay new NFIP rates. They’ve specified they want FEMA to lower the premium rate hike limit to 9 percent.

But as Joel Scata of the Natural Resources Defense Council has written, simply providing affordable insurance will not alone adequately protect vulnerable areas, which are disproportionately home to communities of color, and can unintentionally trap homeowners who might prefer to live outside of a floodplain if they were availed adequate information to make that decision. “Any reforms aimed at providing affordable flood insurance must also be coupled with assistance that helps people reduce or eliminate their vulnerability to flooding in the future,” Scata wrote.

Earlier in March, after years of advocating for assistance, residents of Horry County, South Carolina, received over $15 million for flood mitigation, including a community relocation program similar to what Scata and others have suggested. The program will help repeat flood victims make their houses more resilient or fully fund voluntary relocation.

Terri Straka told WMBF she’s lived in the community for 26 years and is tired of dealing with the perpetual rise and retreat of floodwaters, typical of what outdated NFIP risk ratings encourage.

“Unless it’s happened to you and you’re a victim, you don’t understand,” Straka said. “I’m happy that something right is happening for the people.”