Opinion: Flood Insurance Program Near Drowning, Needs Reform

Opinion: Flood Insurance Program Near Drowning, Needs Reform

Infrastructure,  | Quick Take
Mar 2, 2017  | By  | 4 min read | Print Article

Originally published on October 27, 2017 in The Mercury News

Last week’s tragic flooding should serve as the latest warning that unless Congress reforms the debt-ridden federal flood insurance program, more than 250,000 Californians may be unable to rebuild after the next disastrous storm.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which administers flood coverage to more than 22,000 communities across the country, has been slammed with wave after wave of massive payouts for record-breaking floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.  As a result, the program has accumulated a $25 billion “I.O.U.” to U.S. taxpayers, with no plan for bailing itself out of the debt.

The best option in sight is a proposal to open the flood insurance market to private insurers and give consumers the ability to choose policies more accurately tailored to their risk of flood damage.

Permitting the private sector to help the NFIP write more sensible flood insurance policies would allow consumers to shop among many competing policies, making coverage more affordable.

One study from the Wharton School found that introducing private insurance to the program would reduce rates for many policyholders and increase coverage limits for others.

Private insurance options would reduce consumer dependence on the NFIP and allow the program to transition to an insurer-of-last-resort for those properties that the private market is unable to insure cost-effectively.  The NFIP benefits by being able to focus mitigation efforts on the most at-risk communities.


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Last year, the House of Representatives took an important first-step toward reforming NFIP with unanimous passage of the Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act. This bipartisan bill would have allowed states to regulate private flood insurers to bolster the development of a private flood insurance marketplace.  Unfortunately, the Senate failed to take up the issue before it adjourned.

In addition to bringing more private insurers into the flood insurance market, the SmarterSafer coalition recently released a comprehensive proposal outlining how Congress can make additional reforms to cement the flood insurance program’s long-term success.

One of the recommendations is to ensure that cutting-edge technology and the most accurate risk assessment tools are used to update flood maps. In turn, the burden of determining flood risk is lifted off of individual homeowners. More accurate mapping will enable the NFIP and private insurers to offer rates based on more accurate calculations of a property’s risk of flooding.

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Risk-based rates should be paired with better incentives to mitigate the risk of storm damage. For example, the NFIP should provide financial assistance to lower-income policyholders to better prepare for future storms.

Focusing on environmentally friendly mitigation efforts at the community level will go a long way toward ensuring that homeowners can avoid the worst impacts of the next major storm. Taking proactive measures not only prevents damage, it can save lives.

Floods have hit San Jose hard, and unfortunately, major storms likely will continue to hammer the city and rest of the country for the foreseeable future. But Congress is running out of time to tackle these NFIP reforms before the program expires. If Congress fails this time around, flood victims may find themselves up a creek without a federal paddle.