Hurricane Harvey, the biggest storm to hit the mainland United States in a decade, finally died down. But it will be a long time, probably several years, before life returns to normal for many residents of Houston and other devastated Gulf Coast communities. Now, with damage from Harvey still being tallied, an even bigger storm is barreling toward Florida.
This one-two punch will test the limits of America’s emergency response and disaster relief programs — and amplify our growing vulnerability to hurricanes and other disasters.
We’re referring, in part, to the undeniable progression of global climate change but also to the condition of the National Flood Insurance Program.
It isn’t possible to directly attribute Harvey or any specific weather event to climate change. But climate scientists’ predictions include more extreme weather, and there is proof of warmer air and ocean temperatures, which fortify storms with more precipitation, and rising sea levels, which feed larger storm surges.
Both contributed to the ferocity of Harvey, which burst from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane in a single day before hitting the Texas coast on Aug. 25. Irma, which made landfall Tuesday in the northeast Caribbean and could strike Florida this weekend, is presently a Category 5 storm.
A $7.9 billion relief bill already is moving through Congress to assist with post-Harvey recovery efforts. Texas and Louisiana will need even more help, and damage from Irma will add to the pressure on a federal emergency fund that’s already stretched to its limits.
Only the federal government has the resources to manage disasters of this magnitude, so Congress should be generous. But Congress needs to be sensible, too.
The National Flood Insurance Program, the only source of coverage in flood-prone areas, was created in the 1960s as an alternative to post-disaster aid packages. But most people who aren’t required by law to have coverage don’t, and the program is effectively bankrupt, its reserves drained by Hurricane Sandy.
Legal authority for the flood insurance program expires Sept. 30. Non-renewal isn’t an option, but reauthorization must be contingent on program improvements, including updating the maps used to calculate flood risks and, in turn, determine who needs coverage.
Reforms also are needed to end the costly — and foolhardy — practice of repeatedly rebuilding homes damaged by floods.
Flood insurance paid to rebuild one home in the Houston area 16 times in 18 years, according to USA Today. Other examples abound, including properties along the lower Russian River where serial claims were common until the 1990s when recovery efforts incorporated elevating homes above the 100-year flood line.
Congress tightened the rules in 2012 and raised premiums to better reflect the risk of flood damage but quickly backed off amid protests from real estate interests and representatives of some coastal communities that are at the greatest risk of hurricane damage.
Even so, thousands of people have canceled policies. And, underscoring the need for better flood maps as well as a possible consequence of climate change, neighborhoods that hadn’t flooded in the past were inundated by Harvey.
Some favor a national pool covering all disasters — floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. It’s a promising idea but, given the ongoing battle over health care, it probably isn’t politically feasible at this time. Still, Congress can’t escape this reality: The National Flood Insurance Program is a disaster in the making.