Thursday, 26 May 2022

Opinion | I Would Have Never Bought This Home if I Knew It Flooded

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By Elizabeth Rush

Ms. Rush is the author of “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore,a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 2019. She teaches at Brown University.

I have spent much of the past decade at the soggy edges of this country listening to the people whose homes and businesses flood worse and worse year after year as tides rise higher and storms become stronger. While I still haven’t gotten over the shock of hearing someone describe what it’s like to lose a home or a loved one, another story, submerged in this trauma, has started to surface.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: We live outside the floodplain, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get water here. Or: If I had known that this house was going to flood, I would have never bought it in the first place. Or: Everything was fine until they put a strip mall on top of the old marsh. That’s when the flooding got worse.

At first, I understood these stories as disavowals of the real and increasing risk posed by climate change. People were trying to find other culprits, ones that they could control. But then I asked myself whether those living in frontline flood communities knew something that the rest of us did not.

Last fall, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of national disaster preparedness and response, sought to find out. The agency asked the public how the government can do a better job at identifying flood risks and protecting homeowners, renters and businesses from danger. Now that the comments are in, the agency, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, has a singular opportunity to reduce the risks people face from current and future flooding.

As it is now, the risk to properties is much greater across much of the United States than the federal government estimates. Nearly twice as many properties face danger from potential inundation as FEMA predicts — a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year — according to a group of experts at the First Street Foundation in New York City. And because premiums do not fully reflect the flood risks of its insured properties, the flood insurance program owes nearly $21 billion to the U.S. Treasury. That’s us, the taxpayers.

Though FEMA may be best known for responding to disasters, it also holds substantial sway over what gets built where and how through the flood insurance program. The agency requires participating municipalities and states to meet basic land-use criteria in order for their residents to be eligible for coverage. These criteria, which set the baseline for building and zoning ordinances, haven’t been revised since 1976.

Which is why when FEMA reached out to the public about how to update its standards, I cheered. Then I watched in quiet amazement as hundreds of people across the country flooded FEMA with stories of how their lives and the lives of their neighbors were physically and financially imperiled by the agency’s out-of-date criteria and data.

“You have no idea how devastating and heartbreaking it is to deal with floodwaters mixed with sewage that are always trying to get into my home,” Jacqueline Jones wrote to FEMA on behalf of her organization Reidsville Georgia Community Floods. “I would have never purchased this home if I had known that it flooded, but based on over 10-year-old flood maps, it is assumed that it does not flood in this area.”

April O’Leary of Horry County, S.C., testified at one of three FEMA public meetings in recent months that “close to half of the families” whose homes flood in her county live outside defined flood zones and are not required to carry flood insurance. “On average, our families lose about $100,000 in wealth after the flood,” she said. “Families constantly live in fear of flooding.”

Francisca Acuna of Austin, Texas, was succinct at another meeting: “Don’t build where it floods. Stop recycling flooded properties. Disclose flood risks. Protect or restore ecologies that reduce flooding.” She added, “Make flood insurance fair,” noting that her annual premium had jumped to $1,893 from $450.

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