When the wind starts whipping and rain or snow becomes blinding, Boston-area residents know where to look for damage: From Plum Island to Mattapoisett to the far reaches of Chatham, coastal communities live in fear of a big storm at high tide. For 45 years, homeowners in flood-prone areas have relied on the government-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program to cover their losses. But that lifeline for homeowners is a huge drain on the federal budget. In recent years, payments to those who lost property in major storms like Sandy and Irene have left the program about $24 billion in debt — and have threatened its ability to fulfill its mandate. That has prompted a major reassessment of federal obligations to coastal communities, with far-reaching implications for New England.
As Congress struggles to repair the National Flood Insurance Program, three principles must apply:
■ Property owners should be protected, but their premiums must in some way reflect the danger to their homes or businesses — so that structures prone to repeated damage aren’t simply rebuilt by taxpayers after every nor’easter.
■ Those who make serious alterations to minimize the chance of damage should be rewarded with lower premiums.
■ The flood maps that are used to project potential risks must be based on the best available scientific data.
Congress’ first attempt to fix this problem sent shock waves through coastal communities. The Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, whose effects are only now being felt, cut back drastically on the insurance subsidies, causing some ratepayers to see their annual payments increase tenfold. That’s way too steep: Even people whose homes are most in jeopardy shouldn’t have to swallow a dramatic increase all at once. Adding to the confusion, redrawn flood maps that take into account the projected effects of global warming have put far more buildings in flood zones, thus obliging more property owners to start paying premiums.
As a result, many people living near the coast feel penalized for trusting past federal guidelines — such as about when and how to retrofit their homes — that are no longer considered adequate. Their advocates in the House and Senate have responded with bills seeking to postpone the implementation of Biggert-Waters. But a more responsible approach would be to start incorporating its reforms now, but with far more sensitivity for the burdens on property owners. For example, Congress could increase premiums by no more than 10 percent per year, as some experts have suggested. This, combined with incentives for homeowners who invest in floodproofing, would start to bring policies in line with actual risk while easing the transition to higher premiums.
Meanwhile, Congress should make sure that the studies used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify potential flood zones are truly valid. Representative Bill Keating of the South Shore claims that some of FEMA’s projections are based on Pacific conditions — and that the Atlantic floods quite differently. The agency strenuously disagrees that this methodology affects the map’s accuracy. At the least, FEMA should address any scientifically grounded criticism of its methodology. But there’s a larger issue at stake. To minimize disaster, coastal communities and the federal government must work together to adapt to climate change and discourage risky new construction, without exposing residents of long-established areas to massive premium hikes or total financial loss.