I have spent much of the past decade at the soggy edges of this country listening to the people whose homes and businesses flood worse and worse year after year as tides rise higher and storms become stronger. While I still haven’t gotten over the shock of hearing someone describe what it’s like to lose a home or a loved one, another story, submerged in this trauma, has started to surface.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: We live outside the floodplain, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get water here. Or: If I had known that this house was going to flood, I would have never bought it in the first place. Or: Everything was fine until they put a strip mall on top of the old marsh. That’s when the flooding got worse.
At first, I understood these stories as disavowals of the real and increasing risk posed by climate change. People were trying to find other culprits, ones that they could control. But then I asked myself whether those living in frontline flood communities knew something that the rest of us did not.
Last fall, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of national disaster preparedness and response, sought to find out. The agency asked the public how the government can do a better job at identifying flood risks and protecting homeowners, renters and businesses from danger. Now that the comments are in, the agency, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, has a singular opportunity to reduce the risks people face from current and future flooding.
As it is now, the risk to properties is much greater across much of the United States than the federal government estimates. Nearly twice as many properties face danger from potential inundation as FEMA predicts — a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year — according to a group of experts at the First Street Foundation in New York City. And because premiums do not fully reflect the flood risks of its insured properties, the flood insurance program owes nearly $21 billion to the U.S. Treasury. That’s us, the taxpayers.
Though FEMA may be best known for responding to disasters, it also holds substantial sway over what gets built where and how through the flood insurance program. The agency requires participating municipalities and states to meet basic land-use criteria in order for their residents to be eligible for coverage. These criteria, which set the baseline for building and zoning ordinances, haven’t been revised since 1976.
Which is why when FEMA reached out to the public about how to update its standards, I cheered. Then I watched in quiet amazement as hundreds of people across the country flooded FEMA with stories of how their lives and the lives of their neighbors were physically and financially imperiled by the agency’s out-of-date criteria and data.
“You have no idea how devastating and heartbreaking it is to deal with floodwaters mixed with sewage that are always trying to get into my home,” Jacqueline Jones wrote to FEMA on behalf of her organization Reidsville Georgia Community Floods. “I would have never purchased this home if I had known that it flooded, but based on over 10-year-old flood maps, it is assumed that it does not flood in this area.”
April O’Leary of Horry County, S.C., testified at one of three FEMA public meetings in recent months that “close to half of the families” whose homes flood in her county live outside defined flood zones and are not required to carry flood insurance. “On average, our families lose about $100,000 in wealth after the flood,” she said. “Families constantly live in fear of flooding.”
Francisca Acuna of Austin, Texas, was succinct at another meeting: “Don’t build where it floods. Stop recycling flooded properties. Disclose flood risks. Protect or restore ecologies that reduce flooding.” She added, “Make flood insurance fair,” noting that her annual premium had jumped to $1,893 from $450.
All three women are members of the Anthropocene Alliance, a nationwide collective of climate-changed communities, most of which are home to many low-income people and people of color.
And it wasn’t just those living in flood zones who weighed in. Public policy experts, design firms, former FEMA heads and even Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage company, urged the agency to change the minimum requirements that communities must meet to be eligible to participate in the federal flood insurance program.
FEMA’s standards determine the most basic aspects of how low-lying land ought to be used. According to its antiquated regulations, development of flood-prone parcels is permissible with special permits, and when a storm hits and causes significant damage, flooded homes can be rebuilt in the same place, as long as they are raised or otherwise protected from further flooding. This might have made sense 50 years ago, before flooding was exacerbated by climate change, but it doesn’t today.
Worse, many local governments around the country aren’t even enforcing the rule, which prohibits federally subsidized flood insurance for properties newly built in areas likely to flood. Local governments are supposed to enforce the rule, but as The Times reported in 2020, as many as a quarter-million insurance policies were in violation; the properties accounted for more than $1 billion in flood claims during the past decade.
But perhaps the most damaging of the out-of-date regulations is one that requires that new structures in flood-prone areas be built just above the anticipated water line of what was once known as a 100-year flood. FEMA determines those water lines on its flood maps, but many of them are years or decades out of date and fail to reflect future sea or flood levels. A home built in a floodplain today has at least a one-in-four chance of inundation from a 100-year flood over a 30-year mortgage. According to a recent study in the journal Nature,what was once considered a 100-year flood is likely to, in New England, for example, occur as often as annually by century’s end.
“Rebuilding disaster-devastated communities ultimately costs much more than implementing stronger codes and mitigation programs over time,” Brock Long, a head of FEMA under President Donald Trump, explained when I asked why he supported amending the criteria.
The common-sense land use reforms that many would like to see, myself included, are pretty straightforward. Update the maps, using the best available science, to determine where it will flood today and in the future; require that new construction better withstand storms that are already here and worsening ones in the foreseeable future; make disclosure of past flood damage and flood risk mandatory during all real estate transactions, whether between renter and landlord or buyer and seller, and support relocating families away from hazards — as opposed to rebuilding residential units in the same locations that have flooded repeatedly.
And while I know that ending the wholesale development of low-lying land is in all likelihood a nonstarter, construction in, on or next to wetlands must cease.
Not surprisingly, groups with financial interests in continued development, like the National Association of Home Builders, are trying to fend off reforms by arguing, in part, that they will make homes unaffordable, especially for low-income buyers. But when a flood hits, it’s the poorest who often suffer most. These rules would help people keep their homes when the water rises. An affordable home shouldn’t mean one that is cheaply built in an undesirable, unsafe location.
FEMA says the outreach effort was intended to make tens of thousands of communities across the country “safer, stronger and more resilient.” Now it is up to FEMA and those communities that have agreed to enforce flood plan ordinances to make that happen, to respond to the cries rising from the soggy edges of this country.
Elizabeth Rush is the author of “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 2019. She teaches at Brown University.
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