Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Business

Romano: It’s too late for Florence, but not for flood reform

Sometime this afternoon, the residents who remain will start feeling the effects of Hurricane Florence along the coasts of the Carolinas.

And sometime this winter, we will feel the residual effects in Tampa Bay.

Please realize I am not trying to downplay or make light of the potential devastation our neighboring Atlantic states could be facing with this gigantic storm. Floridians, as much as anyone, understand the pre-storm trepidation and post-storm determination that accompanies most hurricane seasons.

But the stakes, unfortunately, are also high here.

Hurricane Florence is expected to cause massive inland flooding in the Carolinas — and that could cause massive problems for Tampa Bay residents if the National Flood Insurance Program goes deeper down a financial hole.

Just as it did with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

And Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey.

And Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

By now, everyone understands that the current model for flood insurance is no longer sustainable.

Whether you blame it on climate change, overdevelopment of coastal cities or fate simply catching up, a program that was self-sustaining during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, has suffered losses that have exceeded $35 billion since 2005.

Obviously, that’s a problem. Even worse, a lot of people in Congress seem inclined to make Florida pay an outsized portion of any potential solution.

Let me explain it as simply as possible:

In the last 40 years, Florida has accounted for about 7.6 percent of all claims paid by the flood insurance program. By comparison, Louisiana has received 28.8 percent and Texas 23.2 percent. Even New York and New Jersey have gobbled up more money than Florida.

And yet, Florida residents make up almost 35 percent of the nation’s current flood policies. For the math-impaired, that’s 1 out of every 3 policies in America. Heck, if you just count Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, they have more combined policies than either South or North Carolina.

The point is Florida has been paying its fair share. Actually, more than its share.

But when Congress last tried meaningful flood insurance reform, a lot of rates in Florida were briefly raised to unaffordable levels in largely working-class neighborhoods.

That’s not the answer. At least, not a stand-alone answer.

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, says the federal government needs to recognize that flood incidents are becoming more frequent and severe and needs to adjust accordingly. That includes helping people move out of homes that are repeatedly flooded.

Modest-priced homes are often rebuilt over and over, until the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the house.

"The flood insurance program suffers from fatal design flaws that Congress burdened it with a long time ago,’’ Moore said. "If we continue on this path, we’re only going to dig ourselves a deeper hole.’’

So how might Florence be a problem for Florida?

Because the flood program is set to expire Nov. 30, and if Florence sends the program even deeper in debt, you might see Congress react emotionally instead of thoughtfully.

Having said that, reform is clearly needed.

Flood maps need to be updated, and rates need to better reflect risk. Mitigation efforts must be better funded, considering studies have shown a 4-to-1 return on investment. The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to be more transparent with its data and rate calculations.

And, as unpopular as it would be, there should be consideration of a mandatory catastrophe insurance fund that would cover floods, fires, mud slides, volcanoes and other natural disasters nationally. The more risk that is spread ahead of time means the less tax dollars spent in the aftermath.

Florida lawmakers could also help by passing disclosure laws that would let home buyers better understand if a house has had flood claims.

None of this is your imagination. Floods have grown increasingly worse, and Florida will one day have a major event of its own. Simply jacking up rates this winter is not a suitable answer. If anything, it could cause more problems with people bailing out of the program.

Florence is due to arrive any hour.

Flood insurance reform can no longer afford to wait.

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