News | March 11, 2022

SELC: Federal flood insurance program needs an overhaul

Tidal flooding in Charleston. ©Lauren Petracca

A federal flood-insurance program already mired in billions of dollars of debt needs an overhaul to better account for climate change — and inevitably more water-damage claims — while at the same time blocking risky construction in floodplains.

Those are among the comments SELC filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is seeking suggestions on reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.

Some communities in the South have suffered worse flooding catastrophes because of historical discrimination, like redlining and segregation.

Sierra Weaver, Leader of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands Program

According to the Congressional Research Service, the flood-insurance program is more than $20 billion in debt and is approaching the limits of its borrowing authority. The debt has accumulated in part from paying out damages to properties that have repeatedly flooded, and from covering the costs of repairs to properties built in flood-prone areas.

Nationally, there are 37,000 properties that have flooded an average of five times, SELC noted.  In Charleston, more than 750 properties have flooded twice. And in Norfolk, there are more than 900 properties classified as “repetitive loss properties.”

The comments SELC submitted on behalf of more than 40 conservation organizations encourage FEMA to update the flood-insurance program’s standards. NFIP is a part of FEMA.

“The flood-insurance program is already in bad shape because of planning decisions that put more homes in our most vulnerable flood zones,” said Sierra Weaver, leader of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands Team. “The problem is only going to get worse and more expensive as climate change makes floodplains bigger, makes storms stronger, and makes hurricanes drop more water. It’s time to reexamine the program’s standards, and we support the agency’s first step.”

SELC’s comments focused on four key suggestions for improving NFIP:

  • Limiting new development in floodplains
  • Adapting the standards to account for climate change
  • Helping preserve coastal habitat for threatened or endangered species
  • Providing more resources for low-wealth communities and communities of color so they’re not financially harmed by program changes

“Some communities in the South have suffered worse flooding catastrophes because of historical discrimination, like redlining and segregation,” Weaver said. “Many of these communities have low wealth and higher Black and Brown populations, and they’ve been slow to get aid and assistance after a disaster. These communities remain in some of the South’s most flood-prone areas and for many of the residents moving or escaping isn’t financially possible.”

Weaver says any changes to NFIP should offer more financial lifelines to these communities, so they are not further burdened.

SELC noted that some key flooding information in NFIP hasn’t been updated in almost 20 years. The bottom line, Weaver said, is that updates must account for climate change in the future and also for the kinds of flooding our coastal states are seeing now.

“It’s eye-opening when so-called 1,000-year storms are happening every few years,” she said. “That by itself is something that should be top of mind when FEMA takes a long and hard look at where the program goes from here.”