Preparedness

Carolinians Are Under Water, What’s Your Flood Risk?

Americans should know more about their flood risk to mitigate it.

by Jim McKay / September 20, 2018

North Carolina’s Stephanie Walker learned about flood insurance the hard way. She purchased a home in central North Carolina in 2015 that flooded a year later during Hurricane Matthew. Without insurance, she spent $70,000, $25,000 of which was covered by FEMA, to fix things.

Now, as the waters from Hurricane Florence receded from her doorstep, she’s covered. She never realized when she bought the house that she would need flood insurance. “This street should be demolished,” she told Reuters recently. “Houses should have never been put here.”

Her situation gets the heart of several issues regarding the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) as residents in the Carolinas figure out how they will deal with the flooding. The Reuters report said that just 1 percent of homes in the inland counties of North Carolina are insured through the NFIP.

“We advocate for larger investment and resilience upfront of future disasters instead of just shoveling money out the door once a disaster happens,” said Joel Scata of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Our view is that we know the risks and they are increasingly foreseeable and it’s time to address these vulnerabilities before people’s lives and property are destroyed.”

One of the key issues is the lack of knowledge of the risk. “Everyone lives in a flood zone and with flooding being the most common natural disaster in the U.S., it is critical that property owners understand their level of risk,” said Patty Latshaw, senior vice president of compliance and principal NFIP flood coordinator at Wright Flood.

With NFIP nearly $20 billion in debt and $16 billion having been forgiven last year, many say the program needs to be reformed for viability. The NRDC advocates for improving the knowledge that homebuyers and renters have about their flood risks.

“It’s a big problem,” Scata said. “There’s just not enough information out there to help people who face these risks, especially when you’re moving into a new area, you should be fully informed about the flooding risk and a lot of this can be directly influenced by the NFIP.”

For one, homebuyers should know when they are purchasing a house, if it has been flooded before and if they are required to purchase flood insurance. There are no such disclosure laws, where the seller needs to disclose flood-risk information, in 21 states, according to a study done by the NRDC.

The House of Representatives last November passed the 21st Century Flood Reform Act that would require FEMA to provide homeowners the home’s flood history. Scata said FEMA has that information but lacks a means to disseminate it.

NRDC would like to see an interactive database where people can log on and find out about the area they live in — the flood risks, if there are repeated damage claims and if the community is compliant with the NFIP.

“The more information people have,” Scata said, “the better people are in terms of papering on the front end instead of reacting on the back end.”

“In the long run, we think it’s beneficial to FEMA because if a homeowner finds out the house has flooded, or they are required to buy flood insurance from FEMA, then they’ll take up more flood insurance and that gets to the problem of underinsuring for flood risk in this country.”

To that point of purchasing policies, Latshaw wrote in an email that a new NFIP reauthorization bill must clarify that private policies should be accepted by lenders who require flood coverage because it would bring down the cost and help stabilize the program, while reducing the burden on taxpayers. “One of the big consumer benefits to private flood coverage is the addition of broader coverage options, like additional living expenses or higher coverage limits, which are not available with the NFIP flood policy,” she said.

Another area where information needs to improve is flood maps, which have become out of date in most cases. A lot of flood maps are based on past flood events but give no indication of future risks. Modern maps should take into account climate change sea-level rise and extreme weather.

Latshaw said flood maps usually map out large areas rather than specific neighborhoods. But with additional funding, maps can be more localized, giving homeowners a clearer view of their risks. She said if property owners could see how close they are to a high-risk flood zone, they are more likely to maintain the coverage needed to protect them from costly flood-related damages.

More mitigation strategies that could would cost money on the front end by save money on the back end, include relocating residents from areas that are vulnerable instead of continuing to rebuild and fortifying and elevating properties. 

Congress spent $120 billion, after the fact, on disasters for 2017 and as the flooding from Hurricane Florence shows, natural hazards aren’t going away. “It kind of begs the question, ‘What are we buying with that money?’” Scata asked. “Is it just to respond and build back to the status quo?”