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How Hurricane Harvey could shape the National Flood Insurance Program debate

While residents in the Houston area and elsewhere along the Texas coast will be dealing with the devastation from Hurricane Harvey for years to come, Congress is on a much tighter time frame to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, which expires Sept. 30.

How will the country’s latest natural disaster—which the National Weather Service described Sunday as “unprecedented and beyond anything ever experienced”—shape the tenor of the debate?

“I think this is really going to throw a wrench in all the budget discussions,” says Craig Colten, the Carl O. Sauer professor of geography at LSU and an expert in why communities expand in harm’s way.

Congress has been at odds all summer over the reauthorization of the NFIP, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is perennially in debt because it pays out in disaster claims so much more than homeowner premiums bring in. The program currently owes about $23 billion to the U.S. Treasury in funds borrowed to cover the cost of past disasters.

With tens of thousands of Houstonians alone already displaced and untold billions of damage expected from Harvey flooding, it’s already clear is that pressure will be on in Congress to both pass a disaster recovery package and to reauthorize the NFIP.

Colten says ideally a restructured NFIP would expand the pool of those required to carry flood insurance from those who live in a 100-year floodplain to those who live within the 500-year floodplain.

“That would spread the risk and make it more affordable for everyone,” he says. “Especially if you allow private insurers to begin selling flood insurance, then you absolutely have to expand the pool.”

But that isn’t likely to happen, especially now, predicts LSU Law Professor Edward Richards, who has written on coastal and floodplain issues.

“I’d say the politics have been going in the other direction,” Richards says. “The idea that the Republican Congress is going to make someone buy insurance? I don’t see the Republican Congress coming up with a bill that changes the threshold … from the 100-year to the 500-year floodplain.”

Whatever the NFIP reauthorization bill ultimately looks like, Colten believes the country’s latest natural disaster could ultimately result in a better system, which would ultimately be good for Louisiana and other flood-prone areas.

“Hopefully this will bring Texas, New Jersey and a number of other states into the discussion and lead to a more equitable distribution of payouts and a more rational program,” he says.

In the short term, however, both Colten and Richards predict Louisiana will suffer as a result of the disaster—among other reasons, because its outstanding request for federal disaster relief aid from the 2016 flood will likely now fall by the wayside.

“I’d say the fact that they haven’t been able to give away the first allotment (of $1.8 billion that we’ve already received) is part of the problem,” Richards says. “And now that we’re in line behind a much bigger disaster in a much more important place we can forget it.”

There’s another immediate takeaway for Louisiana from the disaster.

“This is a reminder that these events are increasingly more common than we’ve been saying,” Richards says. “This should give pause to everyone who took comfort in labeling last summer’s flood a 1,000-year event.”  

—Stephanie Riegel

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