The federal Flood Insurance Program has been broken for decades and that fact has been recognized for decades. So much so that the flood catastrophe hitting Texas and moving into Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was a disaster everyone knew was coming, but decided to ignore anyway, letting big business, developers, and sprawl prevail.
Nearly two decades before the storm's historic assault on homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast of Texas this week, the National Wildlife Federation released a groundbreaking report about the United States government's dysfunctional flood insurance program, demonstrating how it was making catastrophes worse by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas. The report, titled "Higher Ground," crunched federal data to show that just 2 percent of the program's insured properties were receiving 40 percent of its damage claims. The most egregious example was a home that had flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owners more than $800,000 even though it was valued at less than $115,000. […]
Houston's problem was runaway development in flood-prone areas, accelerated by heavily subsidized federal flood insurance. Now that Hurricane Harvey has turned Conrad's warnings into reality, it's worth noting that Houston's problem was in part a Washington problem, a slow-motion disaster that was easy to predict but politically impossible to prevent. Congress often discusses fixing flood insurance to stop encouraging Americans to build in harm's way, but the National Flood Insurance Program is still almost as dysfunctional as it was 19 years ago. It is now nearly $25 billion in the red, piling debt onto the national credit card. Meanwhile, cities like Houston—as well as New Orleans, which Higher Ground identified as the national leader in repetitive losses eight years before Hurricane Katrina—continue to sprawl into their vulnerable floodplains, aided by the availability of inexpensive federally supported insurance.
Hurricane Harvey is not the first costly flood to hit Houston since that 1998 report. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than two feet of rain on the city, causing about $5 billion in damages. Two relatively modest storms that hit Houston in 2015 and 2016—so small they didn't get names—did so much property damage they made the list of the 15 highest-priced floods in U.S. history. But Houston’s low-lying flatlands keep booming, as sprawling subdivisions and parking lots pave over the wetlands and pastures that used to soak up the area’s excess rainfall, which is how Houston managed to host three “500-year floods” in the past three years.
Conrad, now a consultant for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the flooding we see now "was inevitable. […] We never learn." Building on floodplains, overturning regulations that set aside wetlands and flood buffer zones in order to let developers continue to swallow them up, overturning regulations that try to mitigate future damage, ignoring the climate change that's going to continue to make the disasters worse—that's been the norm in the past decades dominated by Republican control of Congress and the White House.
Cheap flood insurance is just one element of all this—it incentives developing on land that should be left open and unpaved. The program is up for reauthorization next month, and there probably won't be time to make the changes to it that should be made. The question is if this disaster will be enough to spur lawmakers to finally reform the program. Chances are, it won't. Chances are we're going to see the scenario play out again and again and again. Texas Gov. Greg Abott has already promised to "rebuild and make it better than ever." Right back in the middle of the flood zone.