A Broke, and Broken, Flood Insurance Program

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The program has other troubles as well. It cannot force vulnerable households to buy insurance, even though they are required by law to have it. Its flood maps can’t keep up with new construction that can change an area’s flood risk. It has spent billions of dollars repairing houses that just flood again. Its records, for instance, show that a house in Spring, Tex., has been repaired 19 times, for a total of $912,732 — even though it is worth only $42,024.

And after really big floods, the program must rely on armies of subcontractors to determine payments, baffling and infuriating policyholders, like Mr. Clutter, who cannot figure out who is opposing their claims, or why.

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Roy E. Wright, who has directed the flood insurance program for FEMA since June 2015, acknowledged in an interview on Friday that major changes were called for and said some were already in the works. The program’s rate-setting methods, for example, are 30 years old, he said, and new ones will be phased in over the next two years. But other changes — like cutting off coverage to homes that are repeatedly flooded — would require an act of Congress.

“The administration feels very strongly that there needs to be reform this year,” he said. “I believe strongly that we need to expand flood coverage in the United States, and the private insurers are part of that.”

The federal program was created to fill a void left after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, when multiple levees failed, swamping an area bigger than West Virginia and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Insurers, terrified of the never-ending claims they might have to pay, started to exclude flooding from homeowners’ insurance policies. For decades, your only hope if your home was damaged in a flood was disaster relief from the government.

Policymakers thought an insurance program would be better than ad hoc bailouts. If crafted properly, it would make developers and homeowners pay for the risks they took.

When Congress established the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968, it hoped to revive the private flood-insurance market. Initially about 130 insurers gave it a shot, pooling their capital with the government. But there were clashes, and eventually the government drove out the insurers and took over most operations.

Since 1983, Washington has set the insurance rates, mapped the floodplains, written the rules and borne all of the risk. The role of private insurers has been confined to marketing policies and processing claims, as government contractors.

That worked for a few decades. But now, relentless coastal development and the increasing frequency of megastorms and billion-dollar floods have changed the calculus.

Unable to Keep Up With the Floods

The National Flood Insurance Program has been in the red since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and it suddenly had to pay out $16.3 billion in claims.






$16

billion

Hurricanes

Harvey,

Irma and

Maria

National

Flood

Insurance

Program:

14

12

Total

premiums

collected

10

Flood loss

claims paid

8

Hurricane

Sandy

6

Hurricane

Katrina

4

2

0

’78

’80

’85

’90

’95

’00

’05

’12

’17

billion

$16

National Flood

Insurance Program:

14

Hurricanes Harvey,

Irma and Maria

Total premiums collected

12

Hurricane

Katrina

Flood loss claims paid

10

8

Hurricane

Sandy

6

4

2

0

’78

’80

’85

’90

’95

’00

’05

’12

’17






By The New York Times | Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency. Note: Paid flood loss claims for 2017 are estimated.

“Put plainly, the N.F.I.P. is not designed to handle catastrophic losses like those caused by Harvey, Irma and Maria,” Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in a letter to members of Congress after the three huge hurricanes barreled into the United States this season.

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Mr. Mulvaney called on Congress to forgive $16 billion of the program’s debt, which both houses agreed to do.

The program, however, needs more than a financial lifeline: Without major, long-term changes, it will just burn through the $16 billion in savings and be back for more.

The White House is hoping to lure companies back into the market, letting them try to turn a profit on underwriting flood policies instead of simply processing claims for the government.

One measure proposed by the Trump administration is for the government to stop writing coverage on newly built houses on floodplains, starting in 2021. New construction there is supposed to be flood-resistant, and if the government retreats, private insurers may step in. Or so the theory goes.

“The private market is anxious, willing and completely able to take everything except the severe repetitive-loss properties,” said Craig Poulton, chief executive of Poulton Associates, which underwrites American risks for Lloyd’s of London, the big international insurance marketplace.

“Severe repetitive-loss properties” is FEMA’s term for houses that are flooded again and again. There are tens of thousands of them. While they account for fewer than 1 percent of the government’s policies, they make up more than 10 percent of the insurance claims, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued FEMA to get the data.

The Trump administration has also proposed creating a new category of properties that are at extreme risk of repeat flooding and that could have their insurance cut off the next time they flooded.

That might sound harsh. Environmental groups, though, argue it’s worse to repeatedly repair doomed houses on flood-prone sites as oceans warm and sea levels rise. The Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the flood-insurance program should buy such properties so the owners can move somewhere safer.

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The program, however, has only limited authority to make such purchases; homeowners need to line up funding through other government agencies. As a result, such buyouts are rare.

“I have mounds and mounds of paper, and I’m still waiting,” said Olga McKissic of Louisville, Ky., who applied for a buyout in 2015 after her house flooded for the fifth time. “I want them to tear it down.”

Ms. McKissic even had her house classified as a severe repetitive-loss property, thinking FEMA would give it higher priority. But FEMA has not responded to her application. Instead, it doubled her premiums.

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