The North Atlantic hurricane season kicks off today. While activity typically picks up later in the season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting a more active cycle than average, with a 70 percent chance of 10-16 named storms, of which 5-9 could become hurricanes, 1-4 of which will be major.
All of that is to say that NOAA isn’t projecting 2018 to be like last year when Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated parts of the U.S. But it isn’t going to be a meteorological cake walk either. And as Baton Rouge, LA and Ellicott City, MD can attest – you don’t need a hurricane to have catastrophic flooding.
The Ellicott City example is a good one to review. Much of the country may not have heard of the 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event that deluged the town located between DC and Baltimore a week ago, leaving millions of dollars in damage and one first responder dead. But it was déjà vu all over again for the historic town that experienced a 1-in-1,000 year rainfall in 2016. How is that possible? Well for one, the whole “1 in a gazillion year” measure is misleading. It is a way to express the likelihood of such an event occurring in any given year. A 1-in-100 year event has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. 1-in-500 – a 0.2 percent chance. Considering how many people play the lottery with an infinitesimal chance of winning, you would think everyone would protect their financial interests with flood insurance. You would be wrong.
The federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968 and has roughly five million policies in force across the country. Marylanders have 66,705 policies. Those people in Ellicott City? There are 1,034 policies in all of Howard County, which includes Ellicott City. According to the Census Bureau, there are 2.5 million housing units in Maryland and 119,834 in Howard County. That’s a lot of people without coverage. Despite the eye-popping federal disaster spending ($136 billion for the 2017 storms) very little of that goes to individuals, it’s mostly for relief and public infrastructure.
In March 2017, a FEMA official told Congress that after rain storms devastated and flooded Baton Rouge in 2016, the average flood insurance claimant got $86,500. The average person without flood insurance and just getting individual disaster assistance? $9,150. You can’t rebuild your life on $9,150.
But federal flood insurance is getting to a paltry number of the people who need it. There aren’t structural barriers to access, it’s lack of familiarity and lack of understanding. Virtually everyone who buys a home has regular homeowners insurance. Many of these people don’t realize that those policies don’t cover flood until it is too late.
In fact, the program suffers from adverse selection – the only people buying the product are those who are the most likely to use it. That, coupled with decades old subsidies, out of date risk mapping, and a lack of emphasis on mitigation has cost federal taxpayers roughly $32 billion. If you think about it, the most fundamental purpose of government is to protect its citizens. With federal flood insurance, government subsidies end up encouraging citizens to live and remain in harm’s way. Then inevitable public disaster assistance follows on top, costing taxpayers even more.
But Congress has a chance to fix this. The authorization for NFIP expires at the end of July. The House already passed legislation that would extend the program for another five years and tackle many of these issues. In addition, it clears the way for the private sector to become more engaged in writing flood insurance. We’ve already seen companies moving into the market. Further private sector participation could both lead to reduced taxpayer exposure and more Americans obtaining flood insurance. The Senate needs to follow suit. That would be a great way to pre-spond to hurricane season.