You’ve seen the devastating images: homeowners wading through flooded living rooms or clinging to rooftops; the streets turned into rushing rivers. As Hurricane Ian cut through Florida last week he broke records floods in many parts of West Florida.
In the age of climate change, breaking records is the new normal. Ian arrived just two weeks after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, subjecting residents to another devastating storm. Hurricanes are now hitting the United States with increase in frequency and intensity. Unfortunately, recoveries are long, difficult and inequitable; political reform is necessary in the face of escalating risks.
An important starting point is the financing of the recovery. Floods and hurricanes impose enormous costs on households. Federal disaster relief is insufficient and may be slow in coming. Most residents do not have enough savings to cover their losses. That’s why insurance can be so critical to recovery, yet far too many of those currently digging through the rubble of their homes don’t have flood insurance to replace what they’ve lost. Without a national plan to make flood insurance affordable and accessible, many more will continue to struggle after these storms.
There is no hurricane insurance in the United States. More … than 85 percent of homeowners have home insurance that covers wind damage, but only a much smaller percentage are insured against flooding. Floods are not included in a standard policy for homeowners or tenants; households must purchase a separate flood insurance policy to cover storm surges, river flooding, or flooding caused by heavy rains. It’s confusing and expensive. While some private companies offer flood insurance, the majority are sold by the federal government National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
To ensure those most at risk have financial flood protection, Congress requires those who have a mortgage with a federally backed or regulated lender and who are located in high-risk areas. risk, as mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to purchase flood insurance. For everyone else, flood insurance is voluntary, and those outside the mandate often don’t buy it. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to flooding: For example, Ian dumped large amounts of rain in central Florida, inundating communities where almost no one has flood insurance. FEMA maps can be outdated, do not include climate change, and often fail to include areas at risk of flooding during heavy rains.
In fact, in the nine Florida counties that were just declared disaster areas, only 29% of households have federal flood insurance, according to POLITICO E&E News. In Hardee County, where nearly one in five inhabitants lives below the poverty line, only 1.3% of households are insured against floods. This highlights that those who often need flood insurance the most are the least able to afford it – and so they end up without coverage.
This is one of the contributing factors to the strong research finding that low-income communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately from disasters. To begin to address this flood problem, a political consensus has emerged around the need for a means-tested public assistance program for flood insurance. many groups, including FEMAhave put forward political proposals how to design such a program to ensure that those in need benefit from the financial protection offered by insurance.
Such an assistance program could be phased, providing increasing amounts of assistance as income decreases. It could be designed to build on existing programs and use simple qualification criteria to reduce administrative burdens, especially for participants. It should be accessible to all households in need, not just those in areas mapped by FEMA, as these maps do not identify all areas at risk of flooding, especially as climate change progress. The program is expected to be coupled with accelerated assistance in the form of grants to reduce risk for these households through mitigation and buy-back measures to make them safer and lower their insurance costs.
By making flood insurance more affordable, the subsidy would prevent families from losing everything in the next flood. It would also provide wider social benefits as economies recover faster as more residents are insured. And combined with investments in risk reduction, it could reduce future losses.
Proposals for a flood insurance affordability program enjoy rare bipartisan support. After all, disasters do not distinguish between red and blue states. To date, however, Congress has yet to pass such a proposal. This administration is taking laudable steps to improve fairness in our disaster programs and helping those most in need to secure flood coverage would be a critical puzzle piece to improving climate resilience.
Now, in the wake of another devastating flood, it is time for Congress to launch such an agenda. In a warming world, we are sure to experience more storm surges, heavier rains and rising seas. But, by expanding access to flood insurance, we can protect more Americans — especially the most vulnerable — and improve their financial resilience in the face of escalating weather-related disasters.
Carolyn Kousky is associate vice president for economics and policy at the Environmental Defense Fund and author of “Understanding Catastrophe Insurance: New Tools for a More Resilient Future.”