Harvey's lessons for flood insurance and resilience

Even as Hurricane Harvey continues to devastate Texas and Louisiana, experts and policymakers are drawing lessons to better prepare for the costly impacts of a changing climate. A key opportunity comes this month, when Congress takes up reauthorization of the nation’s battered flood insurance program. But the broader challenges of protecting communities against climate change require much stronger efforts on all fronts.

The Gulf Coast is historically prone to hurricanes, but climate change has contributed to a greater intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes and an increase in the amount of rain produced by those events. The rainfall total from Harvey was the most ever in the United States, but this is the third extreme flood the city has faced in the last three years. All across the United States, climate change, sea-level rise and development are driving up the risk of flooding and other climate disasters.

For nearly a century, the country’s primary defense against flood risk has been the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is intended to reduce the impact of flooding on private and public structures by providing affordable insurance to property owners. But with increasingly expensive weather events, the program’s chronic debt (covered by federal taxpayers) has ballooned to $24 billion and insured losses from Harvey could be between $10 billion and $20 billion, adding to the program’s deficit.

When the program was last reauthorized, in 2012, Congress ordered updated flood maps to more accurately reflect risk, and higher premiums to whittle down the debt. The premium increases, however, were later scaled back.

This time, bills offered in Congress have a range of objectives, from reducing costs to preserving the program’s affordability, in some cases by bringing in private insurers. Few, however, include provisions to proactively reduce flood risk. One exception, the bipartisan SAFE NFIP 2017 Act, introduced by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and John Kennedy (R-LA), would provide grants and loans for pre-disaster risk reduction efforts.

With the toll from Hurricane Harvey still rising, Congress could do much more in its reauthorization of the NFIP to address increasing flood risks:

  • Use modern, accurate flood maps based on the best available science that consider climate projections, especially sea level rise.
  • Gradually phase out subsidized rates for high-risk properties to eventually price flood insurance to reflect the flood risk of a property. This should be coupled with targeted assistance for low-income policy holders outside of the NFIP’s rate structure.
  • Incentivize community-led flood risk management and pre-disaster mitigation. Expand the Community Rating System which already offers flood insurance discounts for floodplain management activities to further incentivize mitigation, relocation of high-risk or repeated flooding properties, and natural flood barriers like marshes, wetlands, and floodplains. Mitigation activities that reduce risk to structures or communities should be tied to reduced insurance premiums.
  • Disaster recovery and flood damage payouts should go to resilient design and siting, and not replacement or repair of high-risk structures.

Beyond reforming the NFIP, Congress should reject President Trump’s proposal to ax important programs at the Federal Emergency Management Administration that help communities take steps to prepare before disaster strikes. Chief among these are FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation and Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Programs.

While the immediate focus is flooding, a warming climate is increasing many other types of climate-related risks. By mid-century, for instance, Houston will likely experience an increase in occurrences of two or more consecutive days of heat index above 108 degrees, from the current six to 25 per year.

Addressing these risks requires comprehensive community-based resilience planning with strong state and federal support. Smart strategies can address multiple impacts, like planting trees or using pervious surfaces to increase stormwater retention while cooling streets and homes. Many local governments are now actively planning for climate change impacts, but businesses too need to take extra steps to be prepared.

According to FEMA between 40-60% of small businesses permanently close following a disaster, highlighting that businesses are not adequately covered by NFIP. Stories from Houston of businesses investing in individual resilience measures (like the Texas Medical Center’s 2001 installation of floodgates) highlight the value of preparing for climate impacts, and the value of engaging businesses in city climate resilience planning and actions.

While natural hazards have always happened, climate change is increasing the threats that these hazards pose to cities and businesses across the country. Acknowledging and anticipating these risks locally, in flood recovery and disaster-preparedness, and on the national level, in the reauthorization of the NFIP, is key to making cities, towns, states and businesses more resilient to our changing climate.