A New Tool Tracks Flooded Homes Receiving Taxpayer Money
United States Department of Geological Survey hydrologists inspect flood waters while attaching a water level sensor onto a tree at Riverbend Park in Oroville, California, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg)

A New Tool Tracks Flooded Homes Receiving Taxpayer Money

Passaic County in New Jersey is not in the hurricane belt nor is it on the banks of a major river, and yet 810 properties there received $170 million of  taxpayer money through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) since 1968. These are homes that flooded over and over again; on average, each has made seven separate flood claims over the years. 

That finding comes from a newly released tracking tool by the Natural Resources Defense Council, making public for the first time a data set of all Severe Repetitive Loss Properties (SRLP) across the nation by county. One of the most expensive parts of the insurance program are these properties that flood and are rebuilt with government money over and over again. To qualify for SRLP status, a single property must  receive four or more payments from separate flood events or two payments each worth more than the total value of the property.

The location of the properties is significant because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the program, relies heavily on local managers to ensure that billions in mitigation dollars are being used to build back to a standard that will prevent future flooding.

“One of the reasons we wanted to show the data at the county level is that so much decision-making related to flood plain management happens at the county level,” said Anna Weber, a flood risk policy analyst with NRDC, who used the Freedom of Information Act to pry the local data from FEMA. “This will start to give everyone an idea of how different locations manage risk.”

Every year, the National Flood Insurance Program runs a deficit of roughly $1.4 billion dollars. That’s because NFIP is designed to insure properties that private insurers consider too risky. As climate change increases the number of storms and severe precipitation events, the number of flooded homes also rises. FEMA estimates that 8.7 million homes are at significant risk of flooding, but an analysis done by a non-profit First Street in June shows another 6 million might also be at risk.

There are roughly 37,000 SRLPs and the number grows every year. Both the General Accounting Office and FEMA’s Inspector General have released reports looking at why these numbers cannot be contained. Here are some of the reasons they’ve found:

·     FEMA does not adequately track how many SRLPs have been mitigated.
·     Localities underplay the number of properties that are so damaged that they should be rebuilt to higher flood standards as opposed to be being built back as they were.
·     FEMA doesn’t inspect rebuilt properties to see if mitigation dollars have been used to make the new homes less susceptible to flooding

SRLPs are found all across the United States. As would be expected, there are a particularly large number in hurricane-prone states like Texas, Florida and Louisiana. But the properties can also be found throughout the Northeast, Appalachia, the Midwest and Pacific Northwest as well.

When looking at damages from SLRPs as a percentage damages of total flooded properties, Passaic stood out. Since the NFIP inception in 1968, about 14,000 buildings in the county of 500,000 have received $283.5 million in damage payments. But roughly 60 percent of that money , or $170 million, went to just 810 buildings. To have 60% of flood damages go to SLRPs is unusually high; it’s much more common for counties to have about 10%.

“Passaic is a little absurd,” NRDC’s Weber said. The county officials responsible for administering the program in Passaic did not immediately return calls or emails for comment. However, Weber noted that many of the SRLPs in Passaic predated the flood insurance program and were built before maps noting the area's risk were available. The high dollar amount also likely reflects the fact that Passaic has many relatively expensive homes.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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