Congress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties

Congress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties
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In Charleston, S.C., an area known as West Ashley is considered an idyllic place to live, beloved for its ancient moss-draped oak trees, scenic waterfront vistas, and marshes of the Ashley and Stono Rivers.

Yet many residents of Bridge Pointe, a townhome community in West Ashley, are increasingly eager to move away, and will soon have a chance to do just that.

In October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave Charleston more than $8 million to fund voluntary buyouts of 48 West Ashley homes, including the 32-unit Bridge Pointe complex. The mostly elderly population living there has endured at least four major events in the past two years, lining streets with debris and ruining dry wall.

The Bridge Pointe homes are severe repetitive loss properties, meaning that residents have made multiple claims in the past 10 years against FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is set to expire this month.

The story is familiar to property owners across the country; more than 30,000 such severe repetitive loss properties nationwide have been insured through the NFIP. That is a big reason why this program is burdened with years of debt and needs to be reformed.

Another reason is that flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster in the U.S. Severe weather events have spiked in recent decades, and this year’s hurricane season has continued the trend.

Some estimates of the damage from Harvey, Irma, and Maria exceed $250 billion, and as usual, U.S. taxpayers will foot much of the bill through federal recovery programs. In Texas, the Harris County Flood Control District alone has received buyout requests following Harvey from more than 3,500 property owners.

Officials in numerous states can expect similar requests for help, based on the economic exposure to future storms: for coastal risks, New York ranks number one with $2.92 trillion in insured properties vulnerable to hurricanes, followed by Florida ($2.86 trillion), Texas ($1.17 trillion), Massachusetts ($849 billion) and New Jersey ($713 billion). Many places our communities and families have called home for decades — locations rich in beauty and history — are also highly susceptible to flooding.

I confronted this reality for over four decades as mayor of Charleston. Due to the near-constant threat of flooding in the city, my administration invested heavily in stormwater management, spending almost a quarter billion dollars to upgrade drainage systems — a vast sum, considering Charleston’s annual budget. But for developments like Bridge Pointe, drainage projects haven’t helped.

In early 2016, the city applied for FEMA grants to buy out these properties. As the buyout applications were being processed, Hurricane Matthew left some Bridge Pointe homes with 18 inches of water on their first floors. And this past September, it was the same story with Hurricane Irma.

When residents commit to reducing risk — when they decide to leave dangerous living situations, to save precious taxpayer dollars — government should likewise commit to helping them take that action as fast as possible. Money is tight, and cities can’t do it alone. The federal government must do a better job of working with states and localities to provide flexible funding streams for flood mitigation before storms strike.

Congress should start by including the State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund Act of 2017 as a key reform when it takes up NFIP reauthorization . Under this innovative and bipartisan bill, introduced by U.S. Sens. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Trump asks Turkey for evidence on missing journalist | Key Dem calls for international probe | Five things to know about 'MBS' | Air Force struggles to determine cost of hurricane damage to F-22 jets Trump administration doesn't have ambassadors in Saudi Arabia or Turkey Top Armed Services Dem calls for international probe into missing Saudi journalist MORE (D-R.I.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezTrump lowers refugee goal to 30,000, he must meet it Blame Senate, not FBI, for Kavanaugh travesty Dems urge tech companies to remove 3D-gun blueprints MORE (D-N.J.), the federal government would give capitalization grants to states, which in turn would maintain a fund for providing low-interest loans to communities and individuals to prepare for storms, through a variety of measures including buying out properties in high risk areas and restoring them to green spaces, thus increasing nature’s ability to absorb flood waters. The NFIP bill the House passed in November did not include this essential provision.

The self-replenishing funds would be specifically designated for flood resilience and ready to use on an ongoing basis. Buyout applicants wouldn’t have to wait multiple years — or endure multiple storms — before federal grants come through.

We know mitigation pays for itself. And yet, from 2005 to 2014, FEMA obligated just $600 million to its Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, the federal government’s main vehicle for pre-disaster investments to reduce flood risk, including buyouts. It’s a tiny portion of the $277.6 billion spent by the federal government on disaster assistance over the same time period.

A century ago, West Ashley was mostly wetlands and phosphate mines. Today, 80 percent of the area has been filled with development. Repeated flooding tells us it’s time to relinquish some of that land back to nature. A report released last month by the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2075, annual damage from hurricanes in the U.S. will be $39 billion, much of it resulting from development in hazardous places.

To address this problem, the report points to low-interest loans as one way to pay for relocating to lower risk areas — Congress should pass the State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund Act of 2017 now and begin working with states like South Carolina to set up these funds, so that communities and individuals seeking to take responsible action to reduce their flood risk have the help they need to get out of harm’s way, before the next storm hits.

Joseph P. Riley was Mayor of Charleston, S.C., from December 1975 to January 2016 and now is a distinguished fellow with The Pew Charitable Trusts.