In an email to me on Friday evening, Roy Wright, NFIP administrator and acting FEMA associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, noted that floods are the most common form of disaster. “Flood insurance—whether purchased from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) or through private carriers—enables insured survivors to recover more quickly and more fully after flood events,” Wright said. “It is one way Americans can financially protect themselves from losses caused by floods.”
But this protection might not be possible if the critical instability of NFIP continues. That’s the main reason why politicians have tried—and failed—multiple times to reform the program, and perhaps to create a disincentive for constant rebuilding, and a way to increase premiums on the riskiest bets. But, as environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard noted in his book Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, especially in the Gulf region, the people who are already lapsing on NFIP policies or have avoided them by technicality or grandfather clauses tend to be lower-income and often people of color.
Indeed, historically the most vulnerable populations of people have tended to inhabit land on the riskiest plots flood-wise, which means that efforts to make NFIP more fiscally responsible could also have the effect of stripping marginalized people from the only available tracts of land they can afford.
The conundrum of federal flood insurance has been such that it’s allowed some bipartisan movement in a Congress that is currently polarized to the point of rigidity. NFIP expires in September, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, and West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito have introduced a reauthorization bill that might keep the program from collapsing. The reauthorization would decrease barriers to privatization of flood insurance, would allow NFIP administrators to identify the most expensive beneficiaries, and would strengthen flood mitigation and flood-plain reporting.
But even that reauthorization appears not to be able to grasp the fundamental instability of flood insurance—right now, as a concept, flood insurance is simply not a profitable venture, and as climate change alters weather patterns, there are more and more catastrophic flood events.
Catastrophic flood events like the next few days of Hurricane Harvey, which will create problems that none of the ongoing flood-insurance reforms can fix. No amount of reform will save the lives or homes of people living in the path of the storm now. Many people—perhaps even those with insurance—will be left without recourse when the storm is over. But the thousands of people who will likely lose homes in Hurricane Harvey are reminders of the dire problems caused by flooding, and of the need to create a new, workable program that might be able to cope with the next Katrinas and Sandys and Harveys. Because the evidence indicates there will be many more to come.