Archive for the ‘FEMA’ Category

FEMA Fiddles on Future Flooding

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when Congress did things? Just last year, it passed a bill requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out how the National Flood Insurance program should handle rising seas brought about by global warming. Congress wasn’t going all touchy-feely about the environment. The provision was tucked into a 584 page transportation funding bill.

The first step required by the bill was for FEMA to establish an advisory panel, called the Technical Mapping Advisory Council which was to consult with scientists to help ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the “best available climate science” to assess flood risk, and to ensure that FEMA uses the best available technology to consider the impact of rising sea levels. How’s that working out? According to an investigation by ProPublica,  the entire program has stalled before it got out of the gate. ProPublica tells us that, to date, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council.

This may sound like an obscure bit of bureaucratic delay in an agency that has had more than its fair share of bad press. But if any part of the federal government will be impacted by global warming and rising seas, it’s FEMA. The agency itself estimates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet in this century, increasing the portion of the country at risk of flooding by 45%. The National Flood Insurance Program is the country’s first line of financial defense, but it is currently $25 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Many of the maps FEMA and the insurance program rely on are decades out of date and were drawn up long before anyone thought of rising seas presenting a threat.

ProPublica quotes Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies who says, “We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country.”

ProPublica tried to have an intelligent conversation with FEMA’s press secretary. That conversation went nowhere because the agency was on furlough due to the government shutdown.

National Flood Insurance and Jersey Shore Demographics

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.

Back in 1968, Congress stepped into the flood insurance market to provide coverage where private insurers would not. Today, taxpayers back $527 billion of assets in coastal flood plains insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. Run by the Federal Emergency Agency, the program paid out $16 billion of claims for Katrina; Sandy-related claims could reach $12 billion. The program is already $18 billion in debt, as sum the government acknowledges will probably never be covered by higher premiums.

Besides the program’s cost, what is the issue? In New York alone, 200,000 people live less than four feet above the high tide level. Nationwide, the number of people living in flood-prone areas has been increasing, so each natural disaster damages more property and displaces more people than the last. An op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times opines that the time for the federal government to subsidize the insuring of homes and businesses in high-risk flood zones is long past. If property owners cannot find flood insurance on the private market, which in many cases they cannot, they should bear that risk instead of transferring it to the federal government.

One of the implications of changing federal flood insurance would be increased cost of living in coastal areas. Another Times article covers how Sandy and the coming National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes will make “seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford.” Building requirements for homes in newly mapped flood hazard zones could effect a demographic shift in the northeast, because much of the development encouraged by subsidized insurance would only be affordable to wealthy buyers.

The wisdom of subsidizing status quo demographics on the Jersey Shore to the tune of $18 billion aside, the point of reducing or eliminating federal flood insurance would be to end the cycle of natural disaster and expensive rebuilding without internalizing the risks of development in flood-prone coastal areas, which in light of recent events are certainly expanding. This is a step toward affordable environmental risk-management most people can back in good conscience.

FEMA’s Proposed Changes to the National Flood Insurance Program

Photo by kevin dooley. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this month, law firm Van Ness Feldman published an Alert detailing FEMA’s plans for revising the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

The NFIP was developed in the late 1960s in response to a few seasons of nasty natural disasters. It is a federal program that encourages landowners in participating communities to adopt and enforce FEMA approved floodplain management ordinances. Those communities are then eligible to purchase flood insurance through the program, which is designed to provide a financial alternative to relying on emergency disaster relief. According to FEMA, “the costs associated with flood damage are reduced by nearly $1.7 billion a year” through the program.

Not everyone has been happy with the NFIP, of course. According to Van Ness Feldman, ever since its adoption, the program has faced “ongoing significant criticism,” with critics claiming that it either doesn’t do enough, or does way too much, depending on whom you ask. (For instance, environmentalists have criticized FEMA’s failure to consult with USFWS and/or NMFS on the impact of the NFIP on endangered species.) It is supposedly these criticisms that have driven FEMA to reform the NFIP.

In a mid-May, FEMA filed a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, proposing to evaluate the following proposed action and alternatives in their EIS:

(1) Modify the NFIP based upon changes identified through the evaluation process to enhance floodplain management standards including provisions to address endangered species and habitat concerns. This is FEMA’s proposed action.

(2) Taking no action, which would result in the continued administration and implementation of the NFIP as it stands today.

(3) Discontinue the NFIP, recognizing that only Congress can take this action.

(4) Request legislative authority to remove existing subsidies and cross subsidies for flood insurance policies.

(5) Modify the NFIP based upon changes identified through the evaluation process to enhance floodplain management standards including provisions to address endangered species and habitat concerns and request legislative authority to remove existing subsidies and cross subsidies for flood insurance policies.

Comments will be accepted on the Notice until July 16, 2012.

Learn more about the NFIP: FEMA on the basics, NFIP evaluation, and NFIP reform. You can also read about recent changes to the NFIP approved in late June by Congress as part of the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012 (see Title II).

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