Propelled by enraged constituents whose skyrocketing flood insurance rates threaten hardship or even bankruptcy, the US Senate this week passed legislation to delay changes in the federal flood insurance program for another four years. But the destructive coastal storms associated with climate change are real, and cannot be wished away or kicked down the road for someone else to tackle. Instead of simply hitting the pause button, government officials should be helping homeowners in vulnerable areas retrofit their properties to be more climate-ready, shifting the focus toward preventing costly damage rather than just repairing it.
Red flags are everywhere. In Boston, sheer blind luck kept the city from severe flooding three times in a little over a year. Had Hurricane Sandy, the nor’easter Nemo last February, or the New Year’s blizzard last month peaked at high tide instead of a few hours before or after, water levels would have been 5 to 6 feet above average, according to the Boston Harbor Association. That’s enough to inundate much of downtown, from City Hall to the runways at Logan Airport. “You can’t negotiate with Mother Nature,” said Julie Wormser, executive director of the association.
But the financial hit to homeowners in coastal, river, and low-lying communities is also undeniable. Horror stories of triple-digit premium increases, crashing property values, and confusing, possibly inaccurate actuarial data stretch from Maine to Miami. “It’s really impossible to overstate how disastrous this is for my constituents,” said state Representative Jim Cantwell, whose communities of Marshfield and Scituate are even more vulnerable than Boston.
What’s happening is a perfect storm of federal actions that had been telegraphed for years, even though official Washington now seems surprised by the consequences. First, Congress passed a law in 2012 to phase out federal subsidies for flood insurance coverage in an effort to close a $24 billion deficit in the program. The Biggert-Waters Act increases premiums for older homes by 25 percent a year and eliminates the subsidies for new home sales.
Next, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began rolling out new flood maps to reflect rising sea levels and more frequent and powerful storms, which placed hundreds of thousands of homeowners in flood zones for the first time. That is when the seawater really hit the fan.
The crisis has provoked incongruous reactions among politicians. Deficit hawks who congratulated themselves on Biggert-Waters less than two years ago are calling for its repeal. Environmentalists representing liberal communities along the coasts are challenging the science behind the new FEMA maps and shrugging off their usual urgency about climate change. Free-market conservatives are ignoring the price signals that insurance rates are sending about increased environmental risks.
The rollout of Biggert-Waters is a mess, but the national flood insurance program needed reforming, and not just because it was in debt. Having the government underwrite the status quo obscures the real costs of climate change. And it minimizes incentives for communities to make their coastlines more resilient and neighborhoods more secure. That’s where taxpayer dollars should be going.
Congress should amend Biggert-Waters to phase in the insurance increases more gradually and fairly, but also use some of the revenue from the additional thousands of policyholders, plus money from the general public, to create a permanent climate adaptation fund. Homeowners could apply for grants to fortify their properties, and get insurance abatements, similar to safe-driver credits, for the work. Over time, insurance rates would decrease because actual damages would decrease.
One similar idea is the $50 million plan Governor Patrick unveiled last month to help communities prepare for hits to their energy, transportation, and public health systems in the event of another major storm. “We’re taking it out of emergency response and into how we plan for the future,” Patrick said. All good, but $50 million isn’t nearly adequate to the job.
The risks of a changing climate are not confined to the coasts. A national abatement fund could also help residents in other parts of the country to secure their homes against increasingly severe fires and tornadoes. And think of the jobs that could be created. Sure it would be expensive. But we all contributed to the global warming that is roiling the seas and the air, so we all should share part of the costs.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.