Sep 18 2008
By Cindy Lowry and Gerrit Jobsis
In the wake of Hurricane Ike and the flooding in Alabama, it makes sense to step back and examine our flood policies. It's also a chance to praise Sen. Richard Shelby for his leadership. Despite our ongoing differences with the senator on issues ranging from energy to public lands, he deserves our applause for supporting much-needed reforms to our nation's outdated flood-insurance policies. As a co-sponsor of the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act, Shelby is showing courage and leadership in reforming an important policy that affects the safety of our communities and vital economic and environmental resources.
Our current flood-management practices fail us time and again. The nation has spent billions on flood control and billions more on relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts, yet communities across the nation suffer staggering losses every year from flooding. The devastation from Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricane Ike are only the latest examples.
Something isn't working.
The National Flood Insurance Program was established to help communities afford the cost of insuring against inevitable floods and flooding, but in many respects it has only made things worse. Sub-market insurance rates send false signals on the risks of living in flood-prone areas and encourage development in dangerous places. Flood disasters have bankrupted the program, and it is here where conservationists and conservatives converge interests. Taxpayers should not subsidize people to live in harm's way and damage the very natural resources — wetlands and floodplains — that help protect us from flooding.
The Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act has passed both houses of Congress, and members are now trying to reconcile the two versions of the bill. Shelby and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., championed a Senate bill that would help alleviate the program's financial woes and better communicate the true risk of flooding to communities. This Senate bill contains critical reforms that the House bill lacks.
When the flood insurance program was created, Congress established lower insurance rates to "grandfather" existing homes that were built before any building regulations were enacted. Today, commercial and vacation properties are still taking advantage of these "grandfather" rates in repeatedly flooded areas, meaning taxpayers carry the burden. The Senate bill would phase in market-based insurance rates for those repeatedly flooded properties.
Many Americans have no idea that they live behind a levee or below a dam until the structure breaches and flood waters are crashing through their doors. Others falsely believe that owners of dams and levees will always keep them in good repair and people safe from floods. The Senate bill would require Federal Emergency Management Agency maps to indicate areas that would be flooded as a result of a levee or dam failure, informing property owners of the need to purchase flood insurance.
This past June, the Midwest experienced its second "500-year flood" in 15 years. Climate-change experts tell us to expect more of the same. The Senate bill would mandate that flood maps, which guide planning and development decisions, show not only the traditional 100-year flood zone, but also the "500-year flood" zone to help communities better prepare for their actual flood risk.
Local communities and the U.S. government must make important decisions about how best to minimize flood damages in an almost certainly wetter, stormier future. In addition to these changes, we must increase investments in innovative programs that pay for at-risk communities to move out of harm's way. And, we need to protect and restore healthy wetlands, floodplains and forests that buffer us from storms.
While there is much work yet to be done to improve our nation's flood policies, Shelby's Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act is a strong first step. Alabamians should applaud Shelby for his leadership and encourage him to fight for these reforms to ensure they are included in the final bill.
Gerrit Jobsis is Southeast regional director of American Rivers. Cindy Lowry is president of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.