We're not equipped to handle the financial reality of today's storms

We're not equipped to handle the financial reality of today's storms
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The nation recently witnessed an important turning point in the flood insurance debate. Lawmakers advanced a bipartisan plan to overhaul the federal flood insurance program, which has struggled to keep pace with the record number of natural disasters and payouts in recent years. While there is still work needed to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019 is a significant step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the existing National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is not equipped to handle the financial reality of today’s storms. While the program was originally intended to encourage communities to take steps to progressively reduce the risk of flooding, the program has inadvertently done the opposite. The NFIP has had to borrow $40 billion from taxpayers to date, and the debt load has risen to a level that is irreversible.

Thankfully, the tide is turning.

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The National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019, or H.R. 3167, affords greater protections to homeowners, homebuyers and the communities in which they are located. The bipartisan bill raises the amount of Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) coverage, creates a state revolving loan fund for mitigation activities, and provides updated flood mapping — all critical reforms to the program.

The NFIP bill includes language that would make voluntary buyouts an eligible activity for ICC coverage. These are funds that policyholders typically use to elevate a property. Increasing the coverage amount and clarifying that voluntary buyouts are available would simplify and shorten the buyout process, making buyouts a more viable option for residents of flood-prone areas.

As the climate continues to change, extreme rain events are expected to become more frequent and intense, creating greater risk of major flooding disasters. Climate change together with the impacts associated with sea-level rise make it imperative that communities have access to the financial resources necessary to adapt to and prepare for this risk. That’s where the creation of the state revolving loan fund comes in. According to the bill, states can use the fund to make grants or loans to local communities for mitigation activities, like home elevations or buyouts, to decrease flood risk. 

Accurate flood mapping is also necessary to ensure the safety of Americans who live in flood-prone areas. The maps currently used to estimate exposure to flood risk are badly outdated and alarmingly inaccurate, resulting in an overwhelming number of at-risk properties lacking federal flood insurance. The bill would require FEMA to provide financial and technical assistance to communities to incorporate future flood-hazard conditions as an informational layer on their flood maps. 

The bill would also provide homeowners and home buyers the ability to know a specific property’s flood risk, including a history of past flood damages and insurance payouts. This is information that FEMA, the agency responsible for administering the NFIP, could provide if a property was ever covered by the flood insurance program. The more that flood risk information is available, the better able homeowners and home buyers are to make informed decisions about where to live and how to protect themselves from flooding.

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While the bill unanimously passed the House Financial Services Committee, its biggest test has yet to come. The program has been reauthorized through short-term extensions a dozen times, and there has been little progress in the Senate.

We can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. While there is still work ahead, legislators must come together to pass this much-needed bill.

Rob Moore is the director of the Water & Climate Team at the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a member of SmarterSafer.org.