If you are unnerved by the prospect of the Trump administration responding to the almost Biblical flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, be aware that Congress will have to weigh in almost immediately upon their return from recess. Short-term appropriation of disaster relief, which numerous Texas Republicans opposed after Hurricane Sandy but which even Ted Cruz will surely want now, is in some ways the easy part. In an instance of coincidental timing, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) expires at the end of September, at a time when payouts will spike perhaps like never before.
There’s perhaps no better case study in how stubbornly America refuses to engage with climate change—and the hard choices that come along with it—than federal flood insurance, a massive, wasteful, and unnecessary giveaway of a program. We simply refuse to face the reality of increased flood risk, the same way we refuse to radically alter our energy mix to reduce carbon pollution. Instead, taxpayers shoulder the costs and commit to rebuilding in the same dangerous areas.
Just to be clear, yes, climate change makes extreme flooding more likely. Hotter air and ocean temperatures fuel larger storms and intensify precipitation, as the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report confirms. And sea level rise almost by definition increases flood risk, due to more water volume and higher inland storm surges. Combine that with the fact that almost 40 percent of Americans live near the coast, and Houston, we have a problem.
Speaking of Houston—the nation’s fourth-largest city with a metro area of more than 6.6 million people—much of it sits in a flood plain. The city suffered a “500-year flood,” defined as one with a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year based on past experience, in 2015. It had another 500-year flood in 2016. And it’s experiencing something much bigger than a 500-year flood right now. Maybe it’s time to admit that past performance is no longer any indication of future results.
But the National Flood Insurance Program is, of course, entirely geared to past performance. Created in 1968, it provides mandatory insurance in areas labeled a flood risk, based on maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In theory, homeowners pay premiums to fund claims, making the program self-supporting. But severe weather events have overwhelmed that plan. Hurricane Katrina (and two others in 2005) triggered $19 billion in borrowing from the Treasury, and Superstorm Sandy added another $10 billion in claims. Simply put, flood insurance costs less than it should.
The program is currently $24.6 billion in debt to the Treasury. The maps are outdated and not commensurate with current risk. And Harvey will make the finances much worse. Flood damage may equal the level of Katrina, according to the Insurance Information Institute. (It could even be worse, since most of Harvey’s damage will come from water, not wind.) Another bailout is almost certainly on the way.
There was once hope that Congress would deal with this. In 2012, bipartisan legislation mandated new FEMA maps that would allow annual premium increases of 20 percent and phase out subsidies for high-risk homes built before the maps were adopted. But to the surprise of nobody, people living in those areas didn’t like paying flood insurance rates that reflected their actual risk. Just one year later, Congress rescinded the changes and delayed increases until 2017, which if I read my calendar correctly is now.
Because most states contain at least some risk, the coalition to shield homeowners from the folly of living in a flood-prone area is ideologically diverse, from Massachusetts to Mississippi. In addition, coastal properties can be among the highest valued in the nation, meaning that we’re often not only subsidizing wetter areas but wealthier people. Nobody wants to tell them it makes no sense to live where they live. That’s true even though at least one-third of all NFIP claims come from “repetitive-loss” properties, whose owners pay radically reduced premiums dating back to the 1970s.
This is total madness. Taxpayers who habitually bail out the NFIP are almost literally throwing money into the ocean, because nobody wants to come to grips with how sea-level rise and warmer oceans are remaking America’s geography. We encourage development in areas that Mother Nature will bulldoze like clockwork, only to put homes back up there again.
Houston is a perfect example. We’ve sited ten major oil refineries and the nation’s most important space center in one of the most vulnerable spots in the country. Refinery closures during Harvey could spike fuel prices and ripple across the economy. About 150 chemical plants located in the area are critical to manufacturing; shutdowns are a nightmare for an already fragile global supply chain. Plus, Houston’s runaway zoning, which enables massive sprawl, means areas that could have absorbed rainfall are now paved over.
Maybe this all could be manageable if we showed through public policy that we cared about protecting these regions—and more important, the people living in them. But as ProPublica explained in an excellent report last year, Houston was catastrophically unready for major flooding. On Monday, the city had to release water from its reservoirs because they weren’t built to handle excess capacity. And even storm-surge protection wouldn’t have saved Houston; it’s the rain, not the hurricane, that’s destroying the city.
And yet Houston has been one of the fastest-growing parts of the country for the last decade. The government refuses to use available tools to force adaptation to climate change. Instead, we’ll throw money down a well and call that solving the problem. Donald Trump is leading the way in this absurdity, repealing an Obama-era executive order requiring that federal infrastructure projects take flood maps into account. Pretending that things will magically return to a time before climate change—that temperatures will stop getting warmer, that sea levels will stop rising higher—can only ensure that they’ll get worse.
NFIP’s authority ends September 30, and the expectation is that Harvey’s landfall will spur Congress to a quick extension, as lawmakers cite the hundreds of thousands of homeowners needing aid. But we could also use this tragedy to talk honestly about the future. We will need to either relocate a bunch of Americans, or pay dearly to keep them in place. Either way, inaction escalates the costs over time.
Maybe a fossil fuel industry responsible for a warmer climate should pay for disaster protection and ecological restoration through a carbon tax. Maybe we should end the costly structure of flood insurance, in which private companies sell it but the government pays; eliminating the middlemen could save precious dollars. Or maybe we just discourage coastal living in vulnerable regions, and use the savings to mitigate carbon pollution so fewer families will have to be uprooted.
The discussions will be wrenching, and the decisions tough. But the complacency we are seeing now, in which we are content to just shed a tear and text Red Cross a donation every couple of years, even as we subsidize the disasters explicitly, is absolutely maddening. Doing nothing may be politically expedient; lawmakers always prefer saying yes to their constituents. But failing to reckon with the deep inequities of flood insurance is no different from climate denial, and no less damaging.