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Hurricanes Expose Weakness in National Flood Insurance Program


With Texas officials predicting more than $100 billion in cleanup costs from Hurricane Harvey, and Florida now threatened with flooding from Hurricane Irma, Sandra Knight couldn’t help thinking about flooding right here in Maryland.

Knight is a former deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is now a research engineer at the University of Maryland’s Center for Disaster Resilience. She said that with climate change driving up sea levels, cities like Baltimore and Annapolis in recent years have been experiencing far more frequent floods – and should prepare for even higher storm surges in the near future.

“Some of the statistics from NOAA tell us that, since the 1950s or 1960s, Annapolis and Baltimore have had their rates of sunny day flooding increase over 900 percent,” Knight said. “That tells us we’re very vulnerable.”


And that’s just flooding on sunny days. Greenhouse gas pollution is also contributing to warmer water temperatures, which means more evaporation and more moisture retained in the atmosphere – which contributes to more extreme rainfall events in some areas.

Knight pointed to last summer’s deadly and destructive flash flooding in an historic Howard County shopping district as a reason Maryland should take flood planning and climate change more seriously.

“We saw Ellicott City last year -- what a crazy storm that was,” Knight said. “We’ve got to start realizing that this is the new normal.  These kind of rainfalls are going to continue to happen, and sea level rise is going to exacerbate the problem as well.”

At the national level, planning for floods has been going backwards. Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston, the Trump administration repealed regulations that require smarter rebuilding after floods, so that homes and businesses are built with adequate elevation and not in low-lying areas that are soon likely to flood again.

Rob Moore is an analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Without those standards and without those regulations, we are likely to put everything back exactly the way it was and wait for the next flood to knock it down again,” Moore said.

NRDC recently released a report that that said that the National Flood Insurance Program was already $25 billion in debt, even before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.

NRDC’s investigation found that the program has paid billions in taxpayer money since 1978 repeatedly rebuilding 30,000 properties that are simply too close to waterways that have with rising water levels.

“That causes a financial strain on the program. We’ve spent about $5.5 billion repeatedly rebuilding these properties – some, 10, 20, 30 times,” Moore said. “One property has even been rebuilt 40 times.”

As Congress votes to re-authorize the National Flood Insurance Program this month, Moore argues that lawmakers should impose some common-sense reforms – such as making it easier for the program to help people simply sell their homes and businesses and move farther away from the water.

The federal program cannot dictate local planning decisions.  But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the flood insurance program should only provide taxpayer relief in areas where local governments update their building codes to improve flood safety.

“We should be demanding more out of these communities and out of the states,” Ellis said. “To be able to get access to these (federal) dollars, they are going to have to rebuild in a way that is going to be less vulnerable. And some of that is going to be moving away from the coast and other higher risk areas.”

Historically, much construction has been concentrated along waterfronts.  To change that would require a dramatic turning of the tide, in terms of not only public policy, but also public tastes in real estate.


(Photo of flooding in Houston from CNBC)

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.