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.”