082616 Flood zones vs flooding

Roy Wright doesn't think Congress possesses the "political will" to reform the deeply indebted federal flood insurance program in which many south Louisiana families participate.

The former head of the National Flood Insurance Program, who was on the ground in Baton Rouge during the devastating flood of 2016, returned to Louisiana Monday as keynote speaker at a conference of the Center for Natural Resource Economics & Policy, which was formed at LSU 20 years ago.

Congress has kept the NFIP afloat through a series of stopgap extensions. Earlier this month, legislators agreed to keep the program up and running through the end of September while politicians try to work out a more comprehensive overhaul.

Wright,  who is now CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, said he hopes leaders will stop kicking the can down the road. But he expressed doubts they'll be able to reach a consensus on fundamental changes.

Wright said if he was in charge, he'd look for ways to lure more private companies into the flood insurance business. He also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to keep trying to demonstrate to NFIP participants their actual risk.

"You can't do anything about your risk if you don't understand it," he remarked in an interview.

Flood insurance is required on all houses with a federally-backed mortgage located in high-risk floodplains, also known as special flood hazard areas and A zones.

For years, FEMA sold flood insurance at a discounted rate. However, in 2015, the agency began gradually increasing premiums so participants would eventually pay the actual cost of insuring their property, based on their true risk of flooding.

By 2022, "the rates are going to start to bite," Wright said.

If people know their risk, they can make better decisions when shopping for a house or considering upgrades, he continued.

It's comparatively easy to guard a home against wind damage. Wright showed photos and video of a Florida neighborhood that was mostly demolished by Hurricane Michael. Amidst the debris, six houses were still standing. They weren't mansions or bunkers or fortresses; they were built by volunteers working for Habitat for Humanity. The non-profit simply took a few extra steps to fortify the houses. It probably adds an extra five percent to the total cost of a new house, Wright said.

In contrast, it's much harder to protect against floods.

"Folks will have two choices — up or out. ... It's not affordable," Wright said.

Communities can try to mitigate flood risk with better infrastructure, he said, but in South Louisiana, a lot of that is already in place.

There may be some room for improvement, though.

Speakers on a different panel at Monday's conference discussed the Community Rating System, a mechanism that began in 1990 to give insurance discounts to ratepayers in localities that plan for flooding.

Techniques can be as small as providing flood risk information on water bills or as large as installing new levees and dams. Cities and parishes that leave open spaces to absorb water and keep  drainage systems clean and unclogged can also win points.

The Community Rating System was of recent local interest because 16,000 Livingston Parish homeowners lost their discount when parish authorities were unable to provide construction permit documentation to FEMA.

And despite the benefits, many communities don't participate in the system at all, including six of Louisiana's ten coastal parishes, said LSU doctoral candidate Jennifer Argote.

Researchers have found that participation in the Community Rating System, is higher in areas with a lot of NFIP policies. And Argote said wealthier communities with higher home values are also more likely to seek out CRS discounts.

Some places like Jefferson Parish, which recently improved its rating, have staff dedicated to floodplain management. In other communities, those duties may be only part of someone's job, Argote said. 

She suggested looking for ways to give those communities a hand, perhaps through a program like Louisiana Sea Grant, one of the agencies that's helping put on this week's conference.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.