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Fooled me many times, shame on us

As taxpayers fund payouts for homes flooded multiple times, some lawmakers are calling for reform

Fooled me many times, shame on us

Homes in Spring, Texas, are surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey. (David J. Phillip/AP)

HOUSTON—Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters had barely drained from Houston’s streets before major media outlets began publishing stories about how much it would cost to repair the damage—and how little the city and its residents had learned from past flood events.

The complaints coalesced around repetitive flood losses—properties U.S. taxpayers have paid to repair over and over again. Houston has a lot of them. One Houston-area home had flooded 21 times before Harvey, reaping $1.8 million in federal insurance payouts since 1979. The homeowner referred to the six-bedroom house with an indoor swimming pool as his “investment.”

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which has the government selling low-cost insurance to homeowners for flood damage that their regular insurance policies do not cover, is actuarially unsound, meaning it constantly loses money—and that’s by design. In October, Congress approved a $16 billion bailout for the program, leaving it still $8.6 billion in the red—and that’s before paying claims for Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida, Maria in Puerto Rico, and Nate in Alabama.

Since the program started in 1968, policy analysts have debated whether Washington should be in the insurance business at all, going where discerning insurance companies fear to tread. But one facet seems self-evident: Maybe bail out a home under water once, but don’t keep doing it again and again. Yet, repeat flooding losses have accounted for about one-third of the flood claim payouts during NFIP’s half-century.

So why does the government keep paying to repair houses it knows will flood again? It doesn’t have much choice under current law, which lets local governments decide which houses can be repaired and which must be improved. That puts the already deeply indebted federal program at the mercy of local officials, who have little interest in seeing houses erased from their tax rolls.

Those local officials also face pressure from friends and neighbors who want to rebuild as quickly and cheaply as possible. They are like a teenager who, with dad’s credit card, takes his date to a steakhouse instead of a burger joint. Why worry about the cost if someone else is picking up the tab?

TO SEE HOW THIS DYNAMIC is playing out this year, let’s look at Friendswood, a suburb about 23 miles southeast of Houston. Founded by Quakers in 1895, the small city sits on a flat Gulf Coast prairie ribboned by four normally placid streams: Clear Creek, Coward's Creek, Mary's Creek, and Chigger Creek. It remained a mostly rural community until the 1960s, when employees of the newly opened Johnson Space Center began moving into the area. The growth hasn't slowed. Today, the city has just over 36,000 residents.

Friendswood’s founders considered its geography an asset. According to the city’s official history, the 21 square miles of undeveloped grasslands drained well thanks to those four creeks. Prospectors described it as a “Garden of Eden” for farmers. But as homes and businesses multiplied, replacing grasslands with streets and parking lots, the creeks became less like helpful funnels and more like bathtubs badly in need of some Drano.

On Aug. 26, Harvey unloaded more than 40 inches of rain on Friendswood, turning its four creeks into raging torrents. Officials estimated one-third of the city’s residents suffered some level of flood damage. As soon as the water drained, the city’s planning department began assessing the devastation neighborhood by neighborhood, house to house. They combined their findings into one big damage assessment map dotted with green, yellow, and red.

Properties with minimal damage got green dots, clearing homeowners to rebuild immediately, either with an insurance payout or a recovery grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Those with yellow dots have to provide estimates to prove repairs will cost less than half the home’s appraised value. Red dots indicated substantial damage, a threshold designed to trigger “mitigation,” which means elevating houses in the floodplain so they won’t be flooded again.

But those rules are more like suggestions. Those with homes labeled as substantially damaged aren’t stuck with the designation. If they can get a private appraiser to say their property is worth more than its official value, and a contractor says the repairs won’t cost as much as anticipated, homeowners can get permission to rebuild with no mitigation—at taxpayers’ expense. In most cases, that’s what local officials want, even though it means those houses could flood again. “I don’t want to keep any of our homeowners, who aren’t going to be able to elevate their properties, out of their homes,” Friendswood Assistant City Manager Morad Kabiri told City Council members during an early October meeting.

Kabiri recommended the City Council push aside maps it adopted in 2007 that take into account flooding spawned in 2001 by Tropical Storm Allison. Instead, he wants the city to proceed on the basis of data that FEMA collected and approved in 1999. Using that older and less reliable information will let more homeowners rebuild without raising their homes: They can save money now and go to Uncle Sam again the next time their houses flood. 
 

Kevin M. Cox/The Galveston County Daily News via AP

Residents ride through a flooded neighborhood in Friendswood on Aug. 30. (Kevin M. Cox/The Galveston County Daily News via AP)

FORMER FRIENDSWOOD MAYOR DAVID SMITH, a realtor and a contractor, advocates hazard mitigation: raising some homes, but buying up and demolishing others with huge flood damage and the likelihood of flooding again. Friendswood was in a good position after Allison flooded about 500 homes in 2001: Since the City Council in the 1990s began setting aside money for future buyouts, the city had enough funds to participate in a federal buyout program that eventually led to the demolition of 136 homes. They will not be rebuilt at government expense again and again.

During Harvey, Smith spent all night on a volunteer rescue crew, helping to pull people from their flooded homes. He knew some of those houses had flooded during Allison. In the Cherry Tree Lane neighborhood, across from Smith’s old home, residents climbed aboard rescue boats with dazed expressions. They should have known better, Smith recalled thinking, but then it hit him: Texas is a “buyer beware” state, meaning people who bought houses after Allison in 2001 wouldn’t learn about previous flood damage unless they specifically asked.

“They were clueless,” Smith recalled. “You could tell by their faces as we pulled them onto the boats.” Homeowners who lived closest to Clear Creek participated in the 2001 buyout, but many others made repairs and later sold homes to newcomers. Some homeowners are likely to repeat that process this time around: “All they need to do is understand the rules of the game,” Smith said.

Homeowners with national flood insurance policies may be able to get a payout worth more than 50 percent of their home’s value without doing anything to make flooding next time less likely: There’s no connection between the amount of a payout and the local rebuilding process. Once they complete repairs, homeowners are eligible to apply to FEMA for new flood insurance—and if they followed the correct process, the government can’t turn them down. FEMA also can’t refuse to pay out on the next flood claim, even if it’s as much as, or more, than the last one.

Local officials face pressure from friends and neighbors who want to rebuild as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Why don’t more homeowners choose to elevate their properties? Cost. FEMA does offer a mitigation grant to help pay for elevation, but in most cases, that money won’t come close to covering even half the cost. Smith estimates raising a house with a slab foundation can total up to $300,000. Building on top of an existing structure offers another elevation option, but that still would cost more than FEMA is willing to pay now—so unless something changes, it’s likely to pay more after the next flood.

The state of Texas, unlike many other states, has done something to decrease repeat flooding: The Texas Water Development Board has offered a flood mitigation grant to cover 100 percent of the buyout costs for properties that have flooded four times or more, with repair bills totaling at least $20,000 each time. Houses that have only flooded three times also can apply for buyouts, but the city must cover 10 percent of the cost, about $2.5 million based on the number of houses on the list—and Friendswood’s government has not set aside money for that.

Even if state officials approve buyouts for all 86 homes in Friendswood’s grant application, some homeowners will refuse to sell. After Allison, four of Smith’s neighbors in Imperial Estates rejected the buyout. Three elevated their homes. The one that didn’t flooded again during Harvey. A month after the storm, Smith cruised through his old neighborhood. He shook his head in exasperation as he drove by the pile of Sheetrock and soggy carpet at the curb in front of the lone holdout. If the homeowners want to make repairs again, they probably can. The improved mapping in 2007 places their house in a flood zone, but the 1999 map that FEMA still uses does not.

HOW HARD IS IT IN WASHINGTON to change government giveaways, even when their wastefulness is widely known? In 2012 the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act obliged FEMA over the following five years to stop subsidizing flood insurance for second homes, such as those on beaches, and for properties flooded multiple times. Special interests hollered, and just one year later the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act stopped implementation of Biggert-Waters and forced taxpayers to continue subsidizing repeat flooders.

This year Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican from the Dallas area who has long criticized FEMA’s inefficiencies, voted for immediate disaster relief money but urged his colleagues to fix the “broken” flood insurance program: “After Harvey and Irma, it would be insane for the federal government to simply rebuild repetitive loss homes in the same fashion, in the same place. Shame on us if we do, because the fatalities and economic carnage will just continue to rise.”

Leigh Jones

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

Comments

  • CherylQuilts's picture
    CherylQuilts
    Posted: Sat, 10/21/2017 06:20 am

    Thanks for a great article, Leigh. It's eye-opening and one I hope will help shed light on this grave issue.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Sat, 10/21/2017 07:52 am

    I only got as far as the 3rd paragraph, "The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which has the government selling low-cost insurance to homeowners for flood damage that their regular insurance policies do not cover.."

    I have to comment.  This NFIP insurance, that is mandated on me because I have a mortgage and own a house in a flood zone, is anything but low-cost.  We have 3 properties with flood insurance.  Depending on the area and the flood elevation of the house, my flood insurances range from $1200 to $2000 a year -- the last amount for an 800 sq. ft. home built in the 1950's that has never flooded.  It is highway robbery.

    And you cannot change it to a private insurance in the middle of the policy year unless it is with another NFIP company.  We tried to change it this year at renewal time, and we found a private company for $729 -- a savings of almost $1300 -- but our bank had already paid the first premium, so it didn't work.  

    I, for one, would love to see the government get out of my insurance!

  • Leighanna
    Posted: Sat, 10/21/2017 09:07 am

    Leigh, I appreciate your thought, but it cuts deep for residents (and I know you are one). The market is tight and prices have stayed high, making it not that simple for those who live in flood zones and would be wise to sell and move elsewhere. The cost of raising a house is unquestionably too high for nearly all homeowners, making that not a real solution.

    It’s important to remember that these aren’t just individual houses taking on these benefits over and over — they are whole communities, which are difficult to relocate in an already quickly growing and competitive real estate market. Whatever solution is made will come from years of planning, development, and money spent on the part of the cities.

    This report reads a little cold and analytical.  

  • LAURA SIEGEL
    Posted: Mon, 10/23/2017 04:52 pm

    The issue really is more complicated than this.  The article touches on the fact that many times new development around older homes causes them to be in a flood area.  However, future flood damage can often be prevented through better planning without elevating all homes in an area.  Some of the worst-damaged homes in West Houston had been flooded in prior storms but made it through Harvey just fine.  This was due to improvements in drainage and road infrastructure over the past few years in that area.  However, when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to realease the dams at the end of the storm, entire neighborhoods were destroyed in a matter of hours.  The government decided to sacrifice those homes in order to save others, which was a tough call, but one which should result in FEMA coverage for those involved.

  • 6forHim
    Posted: Thu, 11/02/2017 09:55 pm

    This article does not present the whole picture and I agree with a previous commenter that it reads cold and analytical in the wake of such a catastrophe as Harvey.  This statement in the article, "Those local officials also face pressure from friends and neighbors who want to rebuild as quickly and cheaply as possible. They are like a teenager who, with dad’s credit card, takes his date to a steakhouse instead of a burger joint. Why worry about the cost if someone else is picking up the tab?", is especially concerning.  This rings much more political than factual.  Certainly those who finds themselves in the thick of rebuilding whole communities have a very different perspective.  Reform is necessary on many different levels but this article doesn't address the most important factor which are the people involved.  I'm sure it wasn't the author's intent but reading this article feels a lot like an intentional rubbing of salt into a very fresh wound.  

  • DAVID MCCOY
    Posted: Sun, 11/05/2017 10:03 am

    There are many different areas of the U.S. that are prone to 30, 50, 70-year, etc. catastrophic disasters -- major fires (Napa?), earthquakes, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. It's a part of living in the U.S. and it's not just the flood-prone areas of the south.  Should people not rebuild in the same place where any of the diasters I listed above occur?