Congress Considers Post-Hurricane Flood Insurance Programs

9 10 2017

For the first time since 2005, four hurricanes have made a U.S. landfalls in a single hurricane season in over a decade.

The path of destruction in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate is catastrophic and there is an enormous financial jam facing the National Flood Insurance Program.  There has never been a greater need for the program. But that need has also set off a new round of calls to dramatically overhaul a program that hasn’t been able to sustain itself without major subsidies from the U.S. Treasury.

Established in 1968 to help homeowners living in flood-prone areas that private insurers wouldn’t cover, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has never been on steady financial footing, and continued construction in low-lying areas — as well as more frequent and powerful storms attributed to climate change — have put the NFIP deeply in the red.

As a result, Congress repeatedly finds itself re-authorizing new money to support the program. Even before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the program was set to expire on Sept. 30, and no new insurance policies can be written until it’s re-authorized again. 

Few home insurance policies cover flood damage, and nearly all U.S. flood insurance policies are issued through the program. To qualify for national flood insurance, a home must be in a community that has agreed to adopt and enforce various policies to reduce flooding risk.  

It’s hard to find a member of Congress who will call for an outright abolition of the program, which would likely destabilize real estate markets and property tax bases in those areas. So the aim among some legislators is to pass laws that will encourage homeowners to move into the private market.

One option is to raise the premiums for government insurance to help sustain the program, discourage new construction in high-risk areas and hope that as rates rise, more private companies will enter the flood insurance market.

The fear of many lawmakers who represent these homeowners is that a substantial rise in rates will be more than some can afford. 

The issue had the potential to become a crisis as congressional insiders worried that re-authorizing the program could get tangled up in fights over raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. But to the surprise of nearly everyone, President Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders to re-authorize the program for the short-term and push all of those big decisions into December. 

Now, activists and member of Congress who want to overhaul the flood insurance program have an opportunity to make their case over the next couple of months.

They argue that government-subsidized insurance encourages more people to build in flood-prone areas — which then forces the government to rebuild their homes after every flood at taxpayer expense.

Those advocating an overhaul include taxpayer watchdogs, environmentalists, insurance companies and members of Congress who oppose bailing out areas that allowed building in flood-prone areas. They’re pushing for legislation that requires better flood plain mapping that takes climate change into account, stricter building regulations requiring measures like elevating homes and buildings to reduce flood risk, and setting sustainable insurance rates that won’t shock the market.

A powerful trifecta of interests groups comprised of bankers, real estate agents and home construction companies have fought these efforts. 

Back in 2012, former President Obama signed into law a major Congressional overhaul of the flood insurance program. Among the changes: eliminating subsidies for homes that are repeatedly damaged by flooding. 

But some homeowners and their representatives in Congress protested the steep price increase. In early 2014, Congress and Obama reversed course, passing into law a cap that would limit premium increases and mostly unwound the 2012 efforts. 

Now, many House members are pushing to let the private market take over the job of insuring properties in flood zones.

Supporters of the legislation in the House say they are undeterred, believing it’s the most popular proposal for changing the program and will inevitably pass.

For now, no one on Capitol Hill seems inclined to increase the misery of those affected in Houston by drastically changing the flood insurance program for those who are currently filing claims. And the Florida and Texas delegations have vowed to combine their legislative firepower to protect their constituencies — members from both parties say protecting the program is a key priority.

Source: The Eagle (Bryan-College Station, TX.)

 

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