Flood Insurance Needs Tough Love

I’m going to say something that may sound heartless – it’s time to stop insuring properties that repeatedly flood.

This morning I listened to a report on NPR from Marketplace. The Federal flood insurance program is $20 billion in debt and Congress must take up reauthorization next year. It’s time for a change.

A mere 0.6% of properties have received 10% of payouts. These are properties that flood repeatedly – one property had flooded – and received payment – 40 times. It’s insane to keep paying owners to build in high risk flood plains. And taxpayers must also cover the costs of emergency responders and infrastructure repair.

Now I’ll sound a little less callous. There is a proposal for the Federal government to simply buy an insured flooded property at its pre-flood value. Demolish structures, remove expensive utilities, and return it to whatever sort of landscape nature intended – this last bit is from me. This would save money in the long term and keep faith with owners whom we – the government speaks for us – lured into building in flood plains with below-market-priced insurance.

I propose the buy-out and get-out approach be extended to all Federal flood insurance, and I’d include wildfires – allow private insurance companies to charge whatever they want to re-insure properties that burn. I say this as a person and volunteer firefighter living on the edge of the Gila National Forest, in the wildland-urban interface (the WUI or woo-e as it’s called.) I could be one of those people forced out if a wildfire sweeps through my area – though I do practice Defensible Space.

I can hear my liberal friends saying what I propose would destroy neighborhoods – it would be cruel to allow circumstances to force people away from the homes they love. I can hear my right-wing friends, too – the government wants your land – they want to force everyone into high density cities. I hear these concerns and an honest debate can address them. Just keep in mind that at some point nature will win, and it will be better for everyone if we plan ahead of disaster.

As sea levels rise and droughts intensify, marginal locations become more dangerous. Here’s where I’ll claim some moral high ground. Artificially low insurance premiums lure people into harm’s way. Recovering from a flood is painful and stressful as well as expensive. And people die in floods and fires.

We need to find a decent way to back out of the problem we’ve created.

BTW – There’s a second meaning of Defensible Space that has more to do with urban neighborhoods. It’s interesting enough that I have to mention it, even though it’s off topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensible_space_theory.

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