“I Didn’t Know My House was Going to Flood”

April 11, 2022

Lying in bed I heard the first thunderstorm of spring roll over last night. It’s the time of year when, in my area of the upper midwest, we are most likely to see the types of rain events that have become much more common in recent decades, which keep redefining which neighborhoods and homes are “safe”, and which are “at risk”.
Most Flood plain maps out of date, and people living in those areas do not realize the danger. When the water comes, they will lose value, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, on what is, for most folks, their single most important economic asset.

Elizabeth Rush in New York Times:

As it is now, the risk to properties is much greater across much of the United States than the federal government estimates. Nearly twice as many properties face danger from potential inundation as FEMA predicts — a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year — according to a group of experts at the First Street Foundation in New York City. And because premiums do not fully reflect the flood risks of its insured properties, the flood insurance program owes nearly $21 billion to the U.S. Treasury. That’s us, the taxpayers.

Though FEMA may be best known for responding to disasters, it also holds substantial sway over what gets built where and how through the flood insurance program. The agency requires participating municipalities and states to meet basic land-use criteria in order for their residents to be eligible for coverage. These criteria, which set the baseline for building and zoning ordinances, haven’t been revised since 1976.

Which is why when FEMA reached out to the public about how to update its standards, I cheered. Then I watched in quiet amazement as hundreds of people across the country flooded FEMA with stories of how their lives and the lives of their neighbors were physically and financially imperiled by the agency’s out-of-date criteria and data.

“You have no idea how devastating and heartbreaking it is to deal with floodwaters mixed with sewage that are always trying to get into my home,” Jacqueline Jones wrote to FEMA on behalf of her organization Reidsville Georgia Community Floods. “I would have never purchased this home if I had known that it flooded, but based on over 10-year-old flood maps, it is assumed that it does not flood in this area.”

April O’Leary of Horry County, S.C., testified at one of three FEMA public meetings in recent months that “close to half of the families” whose homes flood in her county live outside defined flood zones and are not required to carry flood insurance. “On average, our families lose about $100,000 in wealth after the flood,” she said. “Families constantly live in fear of flooding.”

Francisca Acuna of Austin, Texas, was succinct at another meeting: “Don’t build where it floods. Stop recycling flooded properties. Disclose flood risks. Protect or restore ecologies that reduce flooding.” She added, “Make flood insurance fair,” noting that her annual premium had jumped to $1,893 from $450.

All three women are members of the Anthropocene Alliance, a nationwide collective of climate-changed communities, most of which are home to many low-income people and people of color.

And it wasn’t just those living in flood zones who weighed in. Public policy experts, design firms, former FEMA heads and even Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage company, urged the agency to change the minimum requirements that communities must meet to be eligible to participate in the federal flood insurance program.

FEMA’s standards determine the most basic aspects of how low-lying land ought to be used. According to its antiquated regulations, development of flood-prone parcels is permissible with special permits, and when a storm hits and causes significant damage, flooded homes can be rebuilt in the same place, as long as they are raised or otherwise protected from further flooding. This might have made sense 50 years ago, before flooding was exacerbated by climate change, but it doesn’t today.

Worse, many local governments around the country aren’t even enforcing the rule, which prohibits federally subsidized flood insurance for properties newly built in areas likely to flood. Local governments are supposed to enforce the rule, but as The Times reported in 2020, as many as a quarter-million insurance policies were in violation; the properties accounted for more than $1 billion in flood claims during the past decade.

But perhaps the most damaging of the out-of-date regulations is one that requires that new structures in flood-prone areas be built just above the anticipated water line of what was once known as a 100-year flood. FEMA determines those water lines on its flood maps, but many of them are years or decades out of date and fail to reflect future sea or flood levels. A home built in a floodplain today has at least a one-in-four chance of inundation from a 100-year flood over a 30-year mortgage. According to a recent study in the journal Nature, what was once considered a 100-year flood is likely to, in New England, for example, occur as often as annually by century’s end.

Below from a FEMA Public Meeting transcript, discussion of the National Flood Insurance Program. (NFIP)


David Maurstad: Flooding is the costliest natural disaster in the United States, resulting in deaths and billions in property damage each year. In spite of this, people continue to live in the nation’s floodplains. Flood and coastal storm events are also increasing in frequency and severity with billion-dollar events up 50% by the end of 2020, compared to the previous decade. And 70% of those costs were incurred in the last three years. By making flood insurance available in communities that adopt and enforce floodplain management ordinances, the NFIP is the national foundation to protect lives and homes from flood disasters. Through its implementation, it is estimated that floodplain management efforts save the nation roughly $1.9 billion annually through avoided flood losses. Currently, there are more than 22,500 communities across the country that participate in the NFIP.


One Response to ““I Didn’t Know My House was Going to Flood””

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “Don’t build where it floods.”

    Flood = rain + terrain

    Even if we weren’t at increasing risk of rain bombs, humans excel at modifying terrain. Any place down slope of a recent wildfire is at risk, too.

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