Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Will Rebuilding After Harvey and Irma Make More Flooding Inevitable?

[The New Yorker] The aim of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was created by Congress, in 1968, in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, is to provide “affordable insurance to property owners.” The program offers what amounts to subsidized coverage, and according to its critics, and also to some of its supporters, the N.F.I.P. has had the perverse effect of encouraging rebuilding in areas where homes and businesses probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.Many homes enrolled in the program have been flooded and repaired more than once. These are known as “repetitive-loss properties.” Then there are homes that have been flooded and repaired at least four times. These are known as “severe repetitive-loss properties.” Into this latter category falls a Mississippi house valued at sixty-nine thousand dollars. The house has flooded thirty-four times, resulting in a total of six hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars in claims.
“It’s basically lather, rinse, repeat,” Steve Ellis, the vice-president of the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, recently told Politico.Perhaps not surprisingly, the National Flood Insurance Program, which was supposed to pay for itself, is deeply in debt; it owes nearly twenty-five billion dollars to the federal government. Authorization for the program was set to expire on September 30th, but then, last Friday, with Houston still flooded from Hurricane Harvey and Florida bracing for Irma, President Trump signed a bill extending the authorization for three months.
Figuring out how to fix the N.F.I.P. is a real and urgent task. (In 2012, Congress approved a measure that was supposed to raise N.F.I.P. premiums, to better reflect the actuarial risk of the policies; then, in 2014, lawmakers reversed themselves, approving a second measure that effectively countermanded the first.) It might also be seen as a metaphor. The response to a disaster can reduce the damage from future calamities, or it can exacerbate it. As Houston and the battered cities of Florida start to look toward rebuilding, obviously decisions ought to be made with an eye toward reducing future risks. But, given who’s running the country and the states most affected, it’s hard to imagine they will be.
Consider the situation in Florida. In many parts of the state, owing to climate change and the accompanying sea-level rise, rain is no longer a prerequisite for flooding. All that’s needed is an unusually high tide. Floridians call this “sunny-day flooding.” A study published in 2016 in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management found that in Miami Beach the frequency of such flooding had increased by a remarkable four hundred per cent over the previous ten years.
Scientists studying this phenomenon have exhorted Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, to acknowledge the problem and try to figure out how to deal with it. Instead, Scott has prohibited state officials from even talking about climate change.
“It’s more than an absence of leadership,” Eric Buermann, the former board chairman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, who is also the former general counsel to the state’s Republican Party, told the Washington Post last week. “There’s harm being done by denying the problem.”
(As it happens, much of Irma’s destruction was caused by wind, rather than by flooding, but here again government policy may have put more people at risk. In Florida, after Hurricane Andrew, which struck in 1992, it became so difficult to get insurance against wind damage that the state formed its own insurance company and offered incentives to induce private companies to enter the market. Now no one is sure whether those private companies will be able to pay out.) Read More