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Boats make their way up a flooded O'Neal Lane just north of I-12 during severe flooding in East Baton Rouge Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

To protect lower- and middle-income families from floods, the federal government needs to flip the way it operates flood insurance, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's paper, "Seeking Higher Ground," comes as Congress debates how to reform the debt-laden National Flood Insurance Program.

Author Rob Moore argues that leaders need to look at properties that flood repeatedly and make it easier to help people who are at risk of such flooding to move to higher ground. Besides the humanitarian argument, Moore says, it's cheaper in the long run to assist people move out of flood zones rather than spend money to bail them out every couple years.

For instance, a recent story in The Washington Post documented a Louisiana home that's flooded more than 40 times. The home, valued at $55,921, received $428,379 in payouts.

Moore's focus was on about 30,000 homes the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers "severe repetitive loss" properties. Those homes have flooded an average of five times and are expected to flood every few years. Louisiana has more-severe repetitive losses than any other state, and they've cost the system $1.22 billion. Rebuilding those houses multiple times is a drain on the NFIP, which is $24.6 billion in the hole, Moore argues.

In fact, the average single-family repetitive loss home is worth $159,792 but has received $149,213 in payouts.

The people who live there aren't "gaming" the system, he said in a conference call with reporters. Rather they don't have the means to move and live in a system that "inadvertently traps" residents on low ground.

Olga McKissic bought her Louisville home in 1986, and for the first 11 years, she was untouched by water. Then, between 1997 and 2015, she flooded four times.

"It is a nightmare living in anticipation that it's going to flood again," she said in the same conference call.

If a person wants to leave a house that constantly takes on water, it can be hard to find a buyer willing to take on the risk. FEMA has a process for selling the land to the government, which allows it to revert to spillway, but the process can take years and receives less than 2 cents of every dollar the NFIP spends rebuilding, Moore wrote.

McKissic hasn't been able to sell her house; she's been trying to apply for a buyout for four years and is still waiting. Meanwhile, since she's tried to start the process, she flooded again, and again, FEMA paid to fix her house.

When FEMA was set up almost 50 years ago, it was based on the premise that no one should be deemed uninsurable, said Don Griffin, vice president of Property Casualty Insurers, a right-leaning trade association whose members cover 27 percent of the homeowners' market and a third of the commercial property and liability market.

Very few people can be denied flood insurance, and if they are, it's because of other reasons, he said.

Moore has advocated making it standard policy to include language in flood policies that guarantees money to help people move if they're at risk of flooding multiple times and if they make 120 percent or less of the median income.

Not only would that help people in crisis, it also would force homebuyers to consider the risks of moving into a floodplain. To help them make that decision, he wants FEMA to take steps such as allowing homebuyers and homeowners to see their properties' flood claim histories. 

Congress is trying to figure out how to re-authorize the NFIP, which is set to expire at the end of September. Moore said he worked with policymakers to draft a pilot program for his idea, but it was struck amid part of a larger discussion about the government purchasing private property.

"It's not as partisan an issue as you might think, though some of the debate is partisan," Griffin said.

There are a few main sticking points, he said.

First, lawmakers are trying to decide whether to keep subsidizing flood insurance or make people pay the full actuarial cost for protection. In 2012, the Biggert-Waters Act began to remove some of the subsidies and grandfathered properties to try to make the system solvent, but it was seen as gouging property owners. Two years later, enforcement was delayed.

There's been some interest in letting more private insurers into the market, but Griffin said they can't compete with the subsidies being offered by the NFIP. Meanwhile, some officials want more oversight of contractors and the private insurance providers who write policies backed by the federal government.

The fallout from Hurricane Sandy is still fresh in mind, and dozens of lawsuits continue to play out over allegations that various government agencies and private contractors committed insurance fraud in the rush for aid after the devastating storm.

With each passing day, it appears more likely the House and Senate won't be able to come up with a deal by the Sept. 30 deadline, though they do have the option of extending the program in its current form.

In a way, some people are facing a different deadline.

The problems faced by homeowners will only get worse with additional coastal land loss, Moore warned. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has already lost land about equal to the state of Delaware.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently updated its findings on Louisiana. On one hand, the state is no longer losing a football field's worth of land each hour; on the other hand, it's still losing a football field's worth to water every 100 minutes, likely because of the long interval since the last major hurricane.

"Decision makers too often see flood insurance as a solution to flooding. It is not. Insurance does not keep a flood from happening; it simply gives a policyholder assistance to rebuild after a flood," Moore wrote.

"But what if rebuilding is not the best option. If a home has flooded multiple times, rebuilding is probably not the best option given the likelihood of another flood."

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.