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FEMA’s focus on climate resiliency is right. Now it must take action before it’s too late.

Revised insurance regulations should prevent people from building (or rebuilding) in flood zones with the expectation that the government will pay them for any climate damage.

Storm surge from the ocean flooded a yard in Scituate during a January 2022 blizzard.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

Scientists have been sounding alarm bells. The catastrophic flooding the nation has experienced in recent years with increasingly alarming frequency — from Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park to Houston to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Scituate — has a common cause: the rapidly changing climate.

In 2021 the Federal Emergency Management Agency took a critical step to bring the agency in line with the current reality of climate change: It announced an overhaul of its National Flood Insurance Program as part of the agency’s strategic plan in order to more accurately reflect flooding risk.


It was an important step. FEMA, an agency established 44 years ago to respond to emergencies and bolster civil defense, found itself out of step with the ever-changing times and climate. Merely responding to natural disasters after they happen is no longer a logical or economically viable way to operate. The agency has to be proactive in terms of helping communities become and remain climate resilient and helping protect against climate disasters before they happen. Otherwise, it will be stuck in an endless and expensive cycle of rebuilding communities only to have them face devastation again.

It’s a complex task that has no easy solution. FEMA is correct that the flood insurance program is an important part of the solution: The program is responsible for far more than providing federal flood insurance to allow communities to rebuild and recover after disastrous weather events. It also oversees other floodplain management, from defining flood zones to determining the flood risk and adopting regulations to mitigate the effects.

But the changes are useless if they have no teeth. Since announcing the overhaul of flood insurance rules nearly a year and half ago, the agency has not acted to propose, let alone adopt, rules and standards aimed at minimizing the risk of future flooding.


One clear need, experts say, is for revised insurance regulations that prevent people from building or rebuilding in flood zones with the expectation that the government will pay them for any climate damage.

“We need to get incentives right, so people don’t have an incentive in the form of flood insurance guarantees to do risky things because they knew the government would make them whole,” said David Victor, professor and codirector of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.

It’s not an easy solution. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary.

“Politically, it is very difficult to tell people they can’t have this insurance anymore,” said Tatyana Deryugina, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose work focuses on environmental, public, and behavioral economics. “There needs to be more of a carrot to get people to move out of those locations where there has been repeated property loss and compensate them.”

Even as FEMA undergoes its rulemaking, it can also redouble its efforts to enforce the rules that are already in place to discourage unwise floodplain development. Deryugina notes that even current requirements that homeowners in floodplains carry flood insurance at a rate reflecting the risk posed to the property isn’t very well enforced.

Congress also has a role to play through the power of the purse.

Instead of focusing on FEMA’s traditional role of responding to disasters after they happen, Congress “ought to direct the balance of spending and expertise in the direction of resilience and preparedness,” every time funding for the federal insurance program is reauthorized, Victor said. “Until the agency sees that as a direct incentive, (they) are going to end up reverting back to what they do most visibly, and that is conventional disaster assistance.”


One thing is clear — there is no time to waste. Last year there were 18 weather disasters with damages totaling in excess of $1 billion dollars — a threefold increase from two decades ago. FEMA and Americans can’t afford to waste any more time.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.