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FEMA Must Revamp Flood Insurance Program

Sept. 15, 2022, 8:00 AM

Flooding has been so catastrophic and overwhelming this year that it’s hard to keep track of all the damage.

Fatal flooding in Kentucky followed stunning rainstorms in St. Louis, and wind, tornadoes, and rain cut a damaging path of across Minnesota. Both Yellowstone and Death Valley national parks had to close because of flooding just this summer. And Mississippi suffered major flooding from a 1000-year rainstorm, the sixth-such event to strike the US in the past two months.

In the wake of this climate-fueled destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to do more to prepare for and mitigate future disasters.

One crucial action it must take is to update the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government’s primary mechanism for addressing flood risks. More than an insurance program, it sets minimum building and land-use standards for more than 22,000 communities across the nation.

The program’s maps depict areas at high risk of flooding and are used to make site and design decisions.

Urgent Need

Climate change has altered weather patterns and poses greater risks for communities and their residents. Preventive action is needed now to address the trend.

Over the past five years, the US has seen 89 major flood and tropical storm disasters and $788 billion in economic losses. Sadly, those facing the greatest risks are people with the least means to recover from the damage, whether they live in Appalachian towns or urban centers.

To its credit, FEMA recognizes the climate-fueled threats to our nation. In the run up to Hurricane Ida’s landfall in 2021, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said on National Public Radio that the agency needs to “anticipate what we think these storms might be 10 years from now, 20 years from now.”

Also, this summer FEMA delivered to Congress an ambitious package of proposed legislative reforms that would create a more stable, climate-smart National Flood Insurance Program.

Responsibility to Act

FEMA, as the sole administrator of the flood insurance program, has legal authority without congressional action to update its building and land-use standards so that the program better protects communities and their residents from the threat of flooding.

However, FEMA has not comprehensively amended these standards since the 1970s, when Gerald Ford was president. Nor has FEMA included projected future flood conditions on any of the more than 8,000 maps the agency has updated since Congress imposed such a mandate in 2012.

That’s why the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Association of State Floodplain Managers petitioned FEMA in early 2021 for an update to building and land-use standards and new regulations that require future flood conditions be incorporated into every flood map.

Last October, FEMA opened a process to do just that, and now we are waiting for the actual proposed changes. Given what we’ve seen this summer, and every summer for the past several years, it’s clear there’s no time to waste.

Needed Updates to Program

The NRDC has urged FEMA to make several updates to the flood insurance program’s standards.

The first thing is to use the best science to protect against building in flood-prone areas. FEMA’s flood maps need updating to account for stronger storms and flood risks from climate change, and, by law, it must do so.

Also, homes in flood-prone areas need to be safer. This can be done by requiring floor levels for new construction and renovations be raised at least two feet above the base flood elevation. In the most flood-prone areas, FEMA should require a higher so-called freeboard standard of four feet above the base flood elevations.

Next, FEMA must protect critical infrastructure from floods. These facilities, such as water treatment plants or hospitals, should not be allowed in areas with a one-in-500-year chance of flooding. If that’s not possible, the facilities should be elevated.

FEMA should also expand mitigation support and access to buyouts for repeatedly flooded properties. The cost of compliance coverage, the money FEMA provides to help homeowners bring their homes up to code, should be raised from $30,000 to at least $60,000.

FEMA should also expand mitigation support and access to buyouts for repeatedly flooded properties. The Increased Cost of Compliance coverage, the money FEMA provides to help homeowners bring their homes up to code, should be raised from $30,000 to at least $60,000.

And FEMA should add a new voluntary Increased Cost of Compliance coverage option that goes up to at least $100,000. Currently, FEMA may charge up to $75 per policy for such cost of compliance coverage, but historically has charged as little as $4 per policy.

Finally, as a condition of participation in the flood insurance program, states and communities should be required to enact disclosure laws. This would allow home buyers and renters to be informed about a property’s history of flood damage and other flood risk information prior to committing to buy or rent.

These basic changes could be proposed by FEMA right away and finalized before the next hurricane season begins June 1. These changes would go a long way toward helping homeowners who face flooding risks—especially those who are not even aware of those risks.

In fact, it’s not just the NRDC calling for these commonsense updates—Fannie Mae urged FEMA to require flood-risk disclosure.

In contrast to the previous administration, the Biden White House has taken a huge step in the right direction by recognizing the risks from climate change.

It’s now time for the leadership at FEMA to use its authority to help those in harm’s way and immediately update the flood insurance program standards.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Joel Scata is a senior attorney at NRDC focusing on federal and state-level flood and sea-level rise policy. Prior to joining NRDC in 2014, Scata served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, working to conserve land threatened by desertification.