Natural disasters cost $306 billion last year — Congress can no longer ignore flood insurance

Natural disasters cost $306 billion last year — Congress can no longer ignore flood insurance
© Getty Images

Even amidst what seems like never-ending gridlock in Congress, one bill remains a must-pass every time: the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds our military.

Congress’ willingness to limit bickering for the sake of the national defense makes sense because people can’t be free without physical safety and, in a dangerous world, a robust armed forces assure that.

ADVERTISEMENT
While Congress moves forward each year to put aside differences and pass defense bills, however, it can’t seem to do the same thing when it comes to an incredibly important program — the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) — designed to keep us safe from natural disasters.

 

The NFIP needs both a long-term re-authorization and significant improvement. Members of the House have already passed a version that does both of these things. Now, members of the Senate need to put aside partisan differences to send a bill to President TrumpDonald John TrumpAl Gore: Trump has had 'less of an impact on environment so far than I feared' Trump claims tapes of him saying the 'n-word' don't exist Trump wanted to require staffers to get permission before writing books: report MORE’s desk.

A quick review of the facts shows just how important NFIP is to Americans’ physical safety. Last year, the tab for all natural disasters came in at a record $306 billion while 4.7 million Americans — more than the combined populations of Philadelphia, San Diego, Boston and Austin —applied for disaster aid. Most of the worst disasters involved flooding.

Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s power grid and devastated the island, while Hurricane Harvey broke a rainfall record for a single tropical storm, and record floods hit at least five states with California ending a drought with its wettest winter ever. Increasing populations in flood-prone areas, sinking coastlines and climate change will all make things worse in the future.

Meanwhile, Congress has punted on reforming and reauthorizing the NFIP six times since it expired last September.

Not a single one of these renewals has made any substantive improvements to the program and all have created uncertainty, which roils real estate markets in flood-prone areas. And with another expiration looming on July 31, the Senate seems poised to sit on its hands once again.

Federal law and regulation requires homeowners with mortgages who live in high-flood risk areas to purchase flood insurance, mapping flood risk in more than 22,000 communities across the country.

Yet, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, 85 percent of the properties that flooded weren’t required to have flood insurance and property owners didn’t understand their flood risk. A lot of this is the fault of the government-provided maps: the research firm CoreLogic found that roughly half of all properties that flooded weren’t mapped to their appropriate risk level.

The House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this year that takes some good first steps towards the needed reforms that would make things safer. The bill clarifies existing law to make it far easier for homeowners to buy insurance from private companies that may offer better prices and service.

The bill also improves flood safety nationwide with $1 billion in new funds to help communities do things like restore flood-absorbing wetlands, build levees and elevate houses. It’s common-sense public safety that has attracted support from across the political spectrum.

But things are at a standstill in the Senate. The Senate Banking Committee, which oversees flood insurance, hasn’t even considered a flood bill this Congress. And there isn’t much time before campaign season starts. This can’t last and it shouldn’t. Our representatives need to remember that the constitution’s mandate to “provide for the common defense” and “promote the general welfare” includes protecting against weather disasters as well as military contingencies.

Senate leadership needs to its job and move forward with meaningful, long-term NFIP reforms. 

Joshua Saks is former legislative director at National Wildlife Federation and has worked on flood insurance issues for years.

Eli Lehrer is the president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank.