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OPED: Flood program should be expanded, not killed

Whitt Flora
Tribune News Service

The writer is addressing the question, “Is it time for the U.S. to ditch the Federal Flood Insurance Program?”

No. It's wrong that millions of Americans can face destitution simply because of where they live.

To ensure every person living on America's floodplains is covered from financial ruin, the Federal Flood Insurance Program that served people well during hurricanes Harvey and Irma should be improved and expanded.

Because of the risks and uncertainty involved, millions of Americans have only one option for flood insurance: the NFIP, now administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Those lucky enough to have flood insurance through the program are guaranteed up to $250,000 to cover rebuilding costs and $100,000 to replace personal possessions. For many, however, this won't be enough to cover the full cost of their losses. That's just one reason the program needs to be beefed up.

Across the country, only 12 percent of homeowners have flood insurance. More than 80 percent of the homeowners affected by Harvey don't have such policies.

Those without flood insurance whose homes have been made uninhabitable by flooding can apply for a $33,300 loan to cover rebuilding costs and hotel stays. And low-interest loans are available through the Small Business Administration.

But the support made available through FEMA and the NFIB is crucial in such situations, as was shown during the recent storms.

FEMA, for example, froze about $134 million owed to dozens of North Carolina counties for repairs after Hurricane Matthew so those funds could be used for repairs after Harvey and Irma. The agency also spent between $150 million to $200 million per day for disaster relief.

FEMA, reacting quickly, also changed its rules to provide advance payments on flood claims, even before visits by adjusters, and increased the advance payment allowable for policyholders who provided photographs or videos showing flood damage and expenses. The agency also extended the grace period for payment of NFIP policy renewal premiums to 120 days. In addition, the agency sent groups of officials to hard hit areas to guide survivors through the very difficult first steps toward recovery.

All that said, the program and the emergency agency should be given more heft.

It's not an exaggeration to say 25 million homeowners living in floodplains need this insurance, about five times as many as have it now. Without it, they have no way to rebuild their lives after floods.

The 49-year-old program, which provides about 98 percent of residential flood insurance, is woefully underfunded and already some $25 billion in debt to the Treasury Department. It desperately needs more funding from Congress.

The best way to expand the program is to renew it on a multi-year basis, as a FEMA official told the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs earlier this year.

Roy Wright, a FEMA deputy associate administrator, said the program should not only be extended for multiple years but should also "recognize the need to increase flood insurance coverage across the nation."

While numerous experts and analysts have called for the insurance program to be reformed, Wright cautioned that ultimately the "premium paid for flood insurance must reflect the risk."

That would mean higher premiums, but they would be worth it — just ask those in Harvey, Irma and Maria's wake who weren't insured.

— A native of El Paso, Texas, Whitt Flora covered the White House for The Columbus Dispatch and was chief congressional correspondent for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. Readers may write him at 319 Shagbark Road, Middle River, MD, 21220.