Severe storms, devastating flooding and all-too-common disasters are showing that our current programs must be modernized.
Too frequently, we are responding to disasters after they occur, giving little attention to proactively reducing risk and increasing the resilience of our nation’s vulnerable communities. One of the most important ways Congress can help protect communities on our coasts and river banks — especially vulnerable, frontline communities — is to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program.
In early April, I had the opportunity to testify before the House Financial Services Committee, where there was broad bipartisan agreement that the current program is unsustainable, both financially and ecologically. The parties agreed that the current National Flood Insurance Program, which has borrowed over $40 billion from taxpayers, does not do enough to protect communities against the dangers of extreme weather events. The program, which was originally established half a century ago to encourage communities to take steps to progressively reduce flood risk and reduce the amount of floodplain development, has unintentionally facilitated exactly the opposite result.
After 10 short-term extensions, we urge Congress to seize this moment — after another year of devastating hurricanes and inland flooding — to reform the National Flood Insurance Program.
The hearing showed that straightforward reforms not only make fiscal sense but would improve the resilience of communities and their ability to withstand severe storms and floods. Though not all disasters are preventable, the nation can limit risk by increasing pre-flood mitigation, improving the accuracy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood mapping and closing the protection gap through private-sector participation.
One of the absolute best ways to reduce flood insurance rates and mitigate against future disasters is to decrease risk. Implementing proactive flood mitigation efforts, especially through natural defenses, will help avoid and minimize damages on the ground and save the country money.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar invested in mitigation funding can save the country $6 in post-disaster costs. And, in the case of riverine flooding, the savings are a 7-1 benefit for proactive mitigation steps such as demolishing or acquiring flood-prone buildings.
In addition to measures such as buyouts and flood-proofing homes and businesses, Congress should encourage investments in communitywide mitigation, including through protecting, restoring or enhancing natural infrastructure like wetlands, upland forests, grasslands and dunes. These natural solutions can help absorb floodwaters and dissipate wave energy, protecting surrounding communities and saving taxpayers from ballooning disaster payments — all while providing essential habitat for imperiled wildlife species. Early investments should be prioritized in vulnerable, low-income communities that too often face the brunt of the devastation from extreme weather events.
Accurate flood mapping is also critical to ensuring the safety of people and their properties. Unfortunately, the majority of the flood maps used by FEMA to estimate exposure to flood risk are badly outdated and alarmingly inaccurate, resulting in an overwhelming number of at-risk properties lacking federal flood insurance. At the very minimum, Congress must require FEMA to use cutting-edge technology, like LIDAR, combined with climate modeling to make the maps as accurate as possible.
Congress must also continue to work with FEMA to close the protection gap through improvements to National Flood Insurance Program policies, especially related to affordability for vulnerable communities, and the expansion of coverage options provided by the private sector. Additional insurance options will improve coverage and increase affordability for millions of Americans who need it most.
In fact, a recent study found that in the three states with over half of all flood insurance policies, between 62 and 88 percent of all homeowners could potentially access more affordable flood options in the private sector. Greater choice and competition will ensure over time that more people get the flood coverage they need and deserve.
With the cost of climate-fueled disasters on an upward trend and forecasters predicting even more mass flooding this spring, an effective National Flood Insurance Program is more important than ever. Natural disaster policy at the federal level must be updated to meet the nation’s evolving needs and the new reality climate change has created.
During this era of divided government, reforming and reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program is a rare policy area with bipartisan support and represents an essential first step toward making our nation stronger and safer.
Collin O’Mara serves as president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and is a member of SmarterSafer.org, which is united in favor of environmentally responsible, fiscally sound approaches to natural catastrophe policy that promotes public safety.
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