By Jake Assael
Flood insurance is rapidly becoming one of the most urgent needs for homeowners living on the coasts. According to Zillow if sea levels continue to rise at current rates 1.9 million homes could be at risk of flooding, with one in eight Florida homes being in danger. During the recent Louisiana flooding an astonishing 110,000 homes worth $20 billion were in areas affected by the flood, leaving thousands homeless and in financial straits. According to floodsmart.gov, a 1-inch flood can cost homeowners upwards of $10,000, with 4-inch floods costing more than $15,000. In an effort to prevent homeowners from paying expensive flood costs, the government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), offers flood insurance. FEMA’s program, The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), was mandated in 1968 and is still heavily depended on today, as flood risks become more extreme and frequent. Since 1968 NFIP and the private insurers it partners with have paid nearly $52 billion in insurance claims and related costs. The average policy premium was nearly $700 a year in 2015. For homes in low to moderate risk areas premiums can get as low as $177 for $20,000 dollars in coverage, encompassing the building (with basement) and contents.
Although NFIP has been historically successful, FEMA has run into recent trouble. NFIP’s insurance requirements and mandates are heavily predicated on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) which lay out flood zones of individual areas, giving communities and property owners a sense for which regions are at the highest risk of flooding. Now these maps, which are still in use, are heavily criticized for being outdated and inconsistent, not appropriately labeling communities with the correct flood risk.
On September 13, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs questioned representatives from FEMA about the inaccuracies of the mapping, and the unnecessary costs it was having on coastal citizens and the taxpayers. As a part of Congress’ mandate homes within the 100-year flood plain are required to purchase flood insurance, lessening the potential need for disaster relief funds, and thus easing the burden of the property owner. But with mapping inaccuracies, residents could be potentially unnecessarily paying for flood insurance, or even worse, or forgo that protection because they thought themselves safe from extensive flooding just to see their property flood. More than 20 percent of flood insurance claims have come from people outside of mapped high-risk flood areas.
The increased frequency of flooding, which we have seen from the Louisiana, Maryland and West Virginia floods are the direct cause of sea level rise instigated by global climate change. Climate change, which is caused by the releasing of carbon emissions, is expanding and raising our oceans, exacerbating coastal erosion and increasing storm frequency and force. Thus rapidly changing the flood plain maps NFIP and coastal counties rely on. The issue is that the flood plain maps created by FEMA don’t account for climate change, and use historical data that is decades old, creating a map that is now widely viewed as unreliable. A whopping 15% of the flood hazard maps date back to the 1970’s or 1980’s. FEMA’s maps look at classic features that could contribute to flooding, citing today’s risks, instead of future risks such as climate change. FEMA does provide more updated maps that track future flood risk for communities that specifically request it.
Earlier this year the White House issued a final guidance requiring all government agencies to consider climate change in its operations, and FEMA has followed suit, as they have begun using climate change to infer its data. Although this is a positive step, FEMA only updates its insurance flood maps every five years. Scientists believe mapping updates should occur more frequently as flood plains continue to change at a more immediate rate. Another issue is the cost of updating the maps. A 2013 report by the Association of State Floodplain Managers estimated that it would cost as much as $7.5 billion to bring FEMA’s maps up to date. A more conservative figure was proposed by Roy White, FEMA’S deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation who conveyed a price of $600 million earlier this month. Albeit the large discrepancy, both prices loom over the amount allocated in the President’s FY ’17 budget which reserves $400 million to support flood mapping and risk analysis activities.
By 2020 47% of the U.S population will live on the coast, exacerbating the need for flood insurance. But without accurate floodplain mapping, millions of people will be vulnerable to the devastating consequences of flood damage spurred by eroding coasts, rising seas, and more intense storms. To mitigate costs, damage, and most importantly loss of life, the federal government, as well as private investors, and local communities must invest in buffering the coasts, and advocating for stricter regulations. The Louisiana flood might have been called a 100-year event, but we should prepare as if it will become an annual occurrence.
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