Hurricane Harvey was a disaster foretold.
Nearly two decades before the storm’s historic assault on homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast of Texas this week, the National Wildlife Federation released a groundbreaking report about the United States government’s dysfunctional flood insurance program, demonstrating how it was making catastrophes worse by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas. The report, titled “Higher Ground,” crunched federal data to show that just 2 percent of the program’s insured properties were receiving 40 percent of its damage claims. The most egregious example was a home that had flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owners more than $800,000 even though it was valued at less than $115,000.
That home was located in Houston, along with more than half of America’s worst “repetitive loss properties” identified in the report. There was one other city with more repetitive losses overall, but Houston is where the federation went to announce its Higher Ground findings in July 1998, to try to build a national case for reform.
“Houston, we have a problem,” declared the report’s author, David Conrad. The repetitive losses from even modest floods, he warned, were a harbinger of a costly and potentially deadly future. “We haven’t seen the worst of this yet,” Conrad said.
Houston’s problem was runaway development in flood-prone areas, accelerated by heavily subsidized federal flood insurance. Now that Hurricane Harvey has turned Conrad’s warnings into reality, it’s worth noting that Houston’s problem was in part a Washington problem, a slow-motion disaster that was easy to predict but politically impossible to prevent. Congress often discusses fixing flood insurance to stop encouraging Americans to build in harm’s way, but the National Flood Insurance Program is still almost as dysfunctional as it was 19 years ago. It is now nearly $25 billion in the red, piling debt onto the national credit card. Meanwhile, cities like Houston—as well as New Orleans, which Higher Ground identified as the national leader in repetitive losses eight years before Hurricane Katrina—continue to sprawl into their vulnerable floodplains, aided by the availability of inexpensive federally supported insurance.
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