Read: Houston’s flood is a design problem
The United States has conducted a century-long, mostly failed experiment in flood control. We have straitjacketed the Mississippi and many other rivers with thousands of miles of levees in the quixotic pursuit of an unattainable goal—the floodless floodplain. But levees give a false sense of security, triggering risky floodplain development behind them. As the Association of State Floodplain Managers explains, “Even the best flood-control systems or structures cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding from all flood events.” When the limits of federal levees became apparent after the Great Flood of 1927, the United States began designing artificial spillways and reservoirs to give rivers more room to spread out, although far less space than provided by their natural floodplains. When these efforts fell short, Congress launched a federal program of disaster relief in 1950. Soon thereafter, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) of 1968 offered federal flood policies, often at below-market, taxpayer-subsidized rates. NFIP payouts began to exceed premiums collected. By 2017, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the NFIP was $30 billion in debt to the federal Treasury. In 2017, Congress canceled a portion of that debt for the first time ever so that the program could continue to pay insurance claims.
Despite these efforts, flooding remains “the costliest and most common natural disaster in the U.S.,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, costing billions annually. What more can we do? Although our experience with floods has been tragic and painful, it has yielded a trove of information that can protect us going forward. A recent paper by the Center for Progressive Reform, to which I contributed, identifies the need for better planning before storms strike, drawing on the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We know what to do, but now must summon the political will at the local, state, and federal levels to make enhanced disaster planning a reality. Hopeful signs have begun to appear.
First, on Monday FEMA is expected to release “Risk Rating 2.0,” which will assess the actual flood risk of individual properties, incorporating previously ignored flood triggers such as heavy precipitation. Previous maps and analyses tied flood risk to the “100-year floodplain”—areas believed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding each year. In many cases, severe flooding occurred outside mapped floodplains, taking people by surprise and without sufficient insurance.
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Second, flood-insurance rates are beginning to reflect the true cost of insuring flood-prone properties. As Fugate has argued, “As long as we price risk too cheap, there’s no incentive to change behavior. Disasters will get bigger.” FEMA’s new “Risk Rating 2.0” lays the groundwork for linking insurance premiums more closely to risk, while also charging more equitable rates for low-value properties.