On Tybee Island, a glimpse of why flood insurance is a vexing US challenge

Congress faces a Dec. 8 deadline to mend a federal flood insurance program that runs chronic imbalances in an era of rising flood risks and densely populated coastal areas.

Stephen B. Morton/AP
Nora Miles (l.) watches her husband, Gene, mop the living room floor Sept. 12 after tropical storm Irma forced two feet of storm surge into their house on Georgia's Tybee Island.

Outwardly, David Satterfield's quiet neighborhood on this barrier island’s southern tip looks pretty much like it always does. But Mr. Satterfield says the veneer is false. In fact, his world was shattered this fall.

The hurricane claimed his man cave.

The final lashes of hurricane Irma colluded with a full-moon “king tide” to flood large parts of Tybee Island for the second time in less than a year. Much of the island already up on eight-foot stilts. But rooms below a home’s “freeboard,” or bottom floor  – many of them turned into man caves, apparently – were hit along with entire homes sunk in three feet of storm surge. For Mr. Satterfield and hundreds of other homeowners, that means TVs, stuffed chairs, and other furnishings of a well-used basement were lost to flood waters that rose to heights not seen for more than 80 years.

In response, Satterfield is spending a fall afternoon building shelves – to put his prized belongings above any future inundation. His flurry of sawing, sweating, and bolting underscores a personal shift in priorities caused by a historic storm season – and a sense of creeping threat from the ocean.

“It’s the risk you take” living on a barrier isle, says Satterfield, whose family’s company was recently inducted into the Towing Hall of Fame. “At the same time, there’s only so much money.”

Amid a record year of costly hurricane strikes, Congress has until Dec. 8 to fix a federal flood insurance program that Bob Hunter, its former administrator, tells the Monitor “is failing in every way.”

To be sure, many coastal dwellers – including Jason Buelterman, the mayor of Tybee Island – are skeptical that Congress can summon the political fortitude to fundamentally reform how the country battens down its hatches.

At the same time, experts say the sheer numbers of homes destroyed by worst hurricane season in US history have brought the inadequacies of the nearly 50-year-old National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) into stark relief.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman was hailed as a hero for his work in reopening the island so residents could assess massive damage after hurricane Irma. Over 100 Tybee Island homes were flooded for the second time in less than a year, underscoring the kind of repetitive claims that are sinking the National Flood Insurance Program. Frustrated by Congressional inaction, Mr. Buelterman is nevertheless pushing residents to apply for federal grants to raise low-lying homes on stilts ​– before the next storm hits. The island's struggle embodies a national debate on coastal preparedness and subsidies for beach dwellers.

On Oct. 27, President Trump signed a disaster relief bill that forgave $16 billion in debt owed by NFIP. The program was already more than $20 billion in the hole before a series of strong hurricanes shook the mainland, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, causing more than $200 billion in damage. Back-to-back disasters are one part of the insolvency. But Congress, wary of offending coastal interests, has also hamstrung the agency’s ability to set premiums commensurate with risk.

The question is whether Congress will truly address what House Freedom Caucus member Rep. David Schweikert (R) of Arizona has called “a moral hazard” in the design of the NFIP. To him, this includes a vexing lack of clarity on risks to not just household wealth, but the US Treasury.

“Where do you draw the line as to what is too much money on the front lines, especially when you look at the basic promise [of NFIP]: protecting assets and livelihoods when there wasn’t a free market solution for doing that?” asks Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, in New York. “The problem is we are good at looking at the last disaster – seeing the need and how to help – but we are not very good at thinking strategically” to minimize the impact of the next one.

Since its founding in 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program has had a mission: Protect home and business owners from disaster events, but also discourage foolhardy development by creating detailed flood maps that allow insurers, underwritten by the US Treasury, to charge varying rates depending on risk.

Now, sea rise and coastal erosion have complicated and delayed the mapping process. In Texas’s Harris County, which includes Houston, Rice University and Texas A&M researchers found that FEMA’s flood maps for southeastern Harris County missed about 75 percent of the damages from hurricanes Ike, Allison, and three other storms. At the same time, as witnessed by Harvey’s impact on Houston, runaway development has placed more and more assets in the danger zone. Only 15 percent of flooded homes in Houston were insured for flood damage.

Meanwhile, FEMA has struggled to fulfill NFIP’s promise, sometimes creating perverse incentives – including subsidizing the rebuilding of frequently flooded homes and businesses. 

“The incentive was the subsidy – that was the carrot – and the stick was they would impose tough maps [higher rates for more flood-prone areas],” says Mr. Hunter, the former administrator. “But FEMA lost control of the program.”

As Irma flooded Tybee, driftwood artist Jay Altman looked out his window and saw the marsh waters swelling onto land and pressing on his doors and into his house.

He looked up and down Lewis Avenue, worst-hit by the storm, and realized the core of the problem: severe repetitive loss. While repeatedly flooded homes make up just 2 percent of the program’s 5 million policies, they account for roughly 30 percent of flood claims — about $17 billion — paid over the program’s history, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

These are not high-rollers, but blue-collar folks: fishermen, artists, carpenters. The average value of a frequently flooded home, FEMA says, is $110,000.

Mr. Altman was living under a tarp in his front yard while rebuilding.

“Unfortunately, I think we have to reconsider whether all of us can stay in these homes,” he says. “I hate to say that, but these storms have shown that it’s true.”

The impact on the island’s culture is already being felt. Already, rising flood insurance premiums have driven perhaps as many as 20 of his friends to sell and leave the island.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Driftwood artist Jay Altman almost got swept away in a massive "king" tide pushed into the island by Hurricane Irma. Having no insurance, he will have to rebuild his home by himself. It was one of 125 on the island that were completely inundated ​– less than a year after many of them were nearly destroyed in hurricane Matthew. Such repeat claims are a major reason why the National Flood Insurance Program is broke.

“It’s not just about this house and this flood insurance program, but about the whole continuum of sustainable development that we’ve been potentially ignoring as a nation, that is being borne out in the damage to this home [and] … to this family,” says Mr. Schlegelmilch,  at the Columbia disaster research center. “With every dollar of relief funding comes an ounce of human suffering and pain that could have been prevented – that’s the message.”

But will it be heard in Washington?

Up until now, there has been little interest in mitigation. When Mr. Buelterman spoke in front of a House committee about more funding to build sand dunes in order to stave off future disaster relief, only half the committee was present and two members were talking on cell phones.

Congress has other reasons to simply forgive the debt and move on. After all, every $27,000 spent by Washington on disaster relief earns one vote for local representatives. Spending money on mitigation ahead of storms earns little to no such electoral credit, political scientists have found.

That political reality is only further fanned by a broader debate over the role of climate change in rising costs – combined with the fact that many of the costs are not primarily climate change related but, rather, can be blamed on flawed risk assessments and incentives for those who choose to live and work close to the water.

Yet there are some subtle signs of deeper political shifts. For one, rather than R or D, this fight is between lowlanders and highlanders.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D) this summer co-sponsored a bill that would provide low-interest loans for homeowners to invest in flood mitigation projects. That bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana. 

On Nov. 14, House Republicans passed the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, which would allow raising rates on properties that have repeat claims, though capping annual premiums at $10,000 even for the riskiest homesteads. The House did not address President Trump's demand that Congress ban new construction from the federal program in order to balance its books. The measure, which has moved to the Senate, is facing opposition from Louisiana, especially, where some 500,000 people who currently pay below-market rates under a grandfathering provision would likely see their rates increase. A lot of coastal dwellers argue that it is not fair that they are facing rate increases for factors beyond their control – including climate change.

The legislation, if enacted, is expected to increase revenues into NFIP by $187 million through 2027, in part by steering more homeowners to private insurers, which are currently barred from offering anything but the federal insurance package. That runs counter to what flood insurance advocates want: a broader risk pool that would bring in more premium cash flow to offset claims. The bill does allow municipalities to draw their own flood maps, which could increase the accuracy of risk assessments. But expanding mitigation efforts – like paying for levee projects, new dunes, and house-lifting grants – would require a broader effort in Congress

“I’m more of a Republican than anything, and [resistance to reforming the program] infuriates me because we’ve got to spend money on mitigation” like sand-dune fortification and helping homeowners raise their homes, says New Jersey resident George Kasimos, whose experience with FEMA after superstorm Sandy in 2012 set him on a course of coastal advocacy. “If we don’t do that, then were done. The program is going to get worse and worse in the hole.”

“It’s about doing what’s best not only for Tybee Island and across the country but how to make ourselves more resilient and less reliant on the federal government,” he adds.

Those sentiments have echoed through the Republican Party, as well, especially as they try to reconcile proposed tax cuts with years of complaints about a growing national debt.

“You’ve got to have an honest conversation,” Representative Schweikert, the Arizona Republican, told The Hill. “The subsidizing of putting homes in harm’s way, it’s not really great for society."

For Mayor Buelterman, the challenge to his island involves not just house values but also the permanence of culture, life style, and responsibility.

“I’ve just about given up on Congress” helping the island address its growing predicament, he says. “But maybe I’m wrong.”

Just down the road from the mayor’s office, Amanda Murray is overseeing trucks hauling flood-rotted debris, from fridges to La-Z-Boys. The pile next to the fire station has grown into a small mountain, a poignant reminder, to some, of the changing dynamics of storm risk – and Washington’s role in protecting what FEMA estimates are 18,000 flood-prone communities.

“Sure seems like a piece of everybody’s house is in that pile,” says Ms. Murray.

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