MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Hurricane Harvey and the National Flood Insurance Fiasco

Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains

HurricaneHarveyNOAANOAATexans, watch out. An aftershock is following behind the catastrophic flooding produced by Hurricane Harvey in coastal Texas: The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is coming up for reauthorization.

The main lesson that the public and policymakers ought to learn from Harvey is: Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains. Unfortunately, the flood insurance program teaches the exact opposite lesson, selling subsidized insurance whose premiums do not come close to covering the risks home and business owners in flood prone areas face.

As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt.

Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager and former Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says. Most of these properties were grandfathered in before the NFIP issued its flood insurance rate maps. The NFIP is not permitted to refuse them insurance or charge them rates based on the actual risks they face.

Clearly, taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properties premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.

To avoid the problem of moral hazard, folks who choose to live in flood prone areas should bear the costs of the risks they face. After Hurricane Ike hit Galveston and Houston in 2008 causing $29 billion in damages, business and government leaders suggested building the "Ike Dike" along the coast to protect against future hurricane storm surges. One estimate puts the cost of building the dike's sand-covered dunes with hardened cores at $5 billion. Of course, proponents expected the federal government would pay for most of the dike's construction costs.

Congress is unlikely to unravel the flood insurance mess by the end of next month, but there are some lessons from recent weather disasters that lawmakers should take into account. If cities like Houston and Galveston need new and better coastal and flood defenses, then their citizens should pay for them.

If Texans living in flood prone areas refuse to tax themselves enough to protect themselves and their property that means that it doesn't make economic sense to live and work there. One proof of the adequacy of their coastal and flood defenses would be the willingness of private insurers to offer flood policies to residents. The same logic applies to all coastal counties. Ultimately, ending flood insurance subsidies will reduce property losses and put fewer lives at risk.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains.

    The good Lord isn't making any more land, Ronald. Plus, that prime proximity to the water? That's something money just can't buy.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Yeah...

    I can understand the "government shouldn't subsidize it" argument. Let people mitigate and accept their own risks and all that jazz.

    But arguing against developing land that's just fine most of the time because sometimes it has a catastrophe? That's kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Sevo||

    "But arguing against developing land that's just fine most of the time because sometimes it has a catastrophe?"
    Nobody made that argument.

  • EscherEnigma||

    "Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains." - Ronald Bailey, 28 August 2017, Reason Hit & Run Blog

  • BYODB||

    That's because that's common sense if you want your house to remain standing. Floods aren't like tornadoes, they're predictable along historic lines of risk. A tornado may not hit your house even though they're common in the area, but if it floods you are definitely wiped out.


    But you're right this time when you say 'let people mitigate and accept their own risk' which is essentially what Ron is saying, with the caveat 'you're stupid if you build in a flood plain'.

  • retiredfire||

    "But we got such a great deal on this land".

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    God is making it now.

  • R. K. Phillips||

    The only argument—if the insurance subsidies are dumped—is whether it's worth it to the land owner to build in that area.

  • Lester224||

    There's an argument for reducing taxpayer risk due to emergency services needed when people build on known flood plains. I don't think one would be able to "not rescue" if people build where known risk is high and a flood occurs. But we can at least say "no national flood insurance available" for people who build in high-risk areas.

  • Davulek||

    The entire impetus of the article was develop, but pay the real cost of your insurance.

  • Juice||

    tax themselves

    Huh?

  • Mickey Rat||

    So where do you suggest moving Houston to?

  • Chuckles_the_Snarky_Piggy||

    I would suggest 25 miles SE.

  • Rat on a train||

    100, just to be sure.

  • Number 7||

    "it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards."

    Isn't that what the social contract is all about?

  • Dave99||

    There is no social contract. It is an ex post facto justification for government (a.k.a. violence).

  • macsnafu||

    Yes, the social contract is all about sticking the costs onto other people.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt.

    Hold my beer...

  • Cy||

    That's going to seem pretty little pretty quick. Harvey is going to make it's way up the Mississippi river basin. This is going to get even more ridiculous very quickly.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains.

    Wrong. Build in flood plains, and especially build in flood plains if someone else will pay for it.

  • Ron||

    I've always wanted to build in a flood plain but my solution is a house boat that floats during every flood. the other solution is what people used to do, is build on stilts in flood zones

  • Hank Phillips||

    Lots of houses on Port Aransas are on stilts. The island doesn't "flood" from rainfall, but storms blow seawater so you can't tell the difference, and them stilts come in handy.

  • sasob||

    Yeah, stilts would go over real big with the home owners associations.

  • Cy||

    Or... build on stilts... or build a reinforced plane above the flood plane.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well, the really-really fucked-up part of it is (if you research the details) that the local powers in Houston FORBID you from digging up or trucking in dirt to raise the foundation of your new house!!! This is on a socialistic theory... If I raise up my house foundation (do not let flood waters inundate my house), then I am "displacing" flood waters onto my neighbors!!! The same argument could be applied to the volume of waters displaced by the PILLARS upon which I place my raised house!!! There is NO real incentive to protect oneself, when building on ANY kind of flood plain!!!

    We are ALL on a flood plain, according to Noah's Arc and Globabble Warmererering, and the melting of the polar ice caps!!! And Government Almighty mandates that we must all suffer; we can NOT protect ourselves! I could probably find a source link for this (try Houston Chronicle newspaper), but I am too lazy, and believers (one way or another) believe what they want to believe, anyway...

    PS, also please do NOT float your boat by my flooded house, because that, too, "displaces water onto" my house... Can I sue the Government Almighty boats that come to rescue me? The money to the lawyers would stimulate the economy, ya know...

  • mattrue||

    Your neighbor's house displaces water fer crissakes! But God wanted Texas to be flat and therefore easy to wash, so we must obey.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    "Ike Dike"

    Isn't that what they called a lesbian who voted for Eisenhower?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Kay Summersby?

  • Ken Shultz||

    It's important to remember that the structure is typically only a small fraction of the value of a home. Most people feel like they aren't carrying enough fire insurance for that reason. They think, "Well if I paid $400,000 for the house, why am I only insuring it for $150,000?"

    There's some market value associated with location and demand in your area, but the actual value is also in the sewer lines, the streets, the sidewalks, the land itself, the grading, the storm drains, the electricity lines. etc--which aren't destroyed in floods or fires. Go look at the difference in price between finished lots and raw land.

    We tend to think of streets as being paid for by taxpayers, but the streets in your neighborhood were probably built by the developer, who covered his costs by selling finished houses. That's why construction is only a fraction of the value of your home.

    And that's why people typically rebuild. Most of the value in that land isn't lost just because a flood destroys the structure, and it's easy to get a construction loan against those infrastructure assets because they're still in the ground after a fire or floods comes through. Why rebuild all those streets, storm drains, utilities, firehouses, and schools somewhere else--when they're sitting there unused after a natural disaster destroys the structure?

  • contrarian||

    There will be no Houston exodus, sure. But it's hard to argue that we can't benefit from an accurate accounting of environmental risks factored into prices. It means better decision-making likely visible over the long term (where do you build infrastructure?) and on the margins (moving in extreme cases, physical flood protection, etc).

  • Ken Shultz||

    It's all about cost. We could build roads that last for 2,000 years like the Romans did, too, but slave labor was cheap back then. It makes more sense for us to just repave the streets every 20 years. Abandoning a city full of valuable infrastructure because it needs to be rebuilt every thirty years because of a natural disaster is like abandoning a paved road because it will someday need to be repaved.

    Abandoning valuable assets entirely because of a risk of flooding wouldn't even make sense in a totally free market.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    The problem, Ken, is that "we" should not be doing anything. The citizens of Houston, if they choose to rebuild, should pay for the rebuild.

  • Ron Bailey||

    KS: Is it possible that all that infrastructure - roads, sewers, schools, etc. - might not have been built on a flood plain had there been no subsidized flood insurance? Just asking.

  • EscherEnigma||

    The area was settled in the early 1800s.
    the FEMA flood insurance program wasn't started until 1968.
    In 1970 (closest year I could find), Houston's population was about 1.2 million, making it the 6th largest city in the US at the time.
    In 2010 Houston's population was about 2.1 million, making it the 4th largest city in the US.

    So yeah. It was built and developed and a top-ten city before subsidized flood insurance. Without flood insurance, it might be smaller then it is now, but it probably would still be a damn big city.

  • EscherEnigma||

    For further reference, if Houston had 0 growth since 1970, it would still be a top-ten city in 2010, in spot #9.

  • Ken Shultz||

    In many cases, I think the government forces you to buy flood insurance if you're in a flood plain.

    In fact, flood plains move around. I had a piece of land, once, where the Army Corp had come in and built a flood channel some 20 years earlier, but they never updated the flood map with FEMA. The government was requiring these people to buy flood insurance for 20 years--only because they were in a flood plain on the map. Not because they were actually in the flood plain.

    When we came along and updated the flood map for everyone downstream--generating good will with the city--it moved a lot of people out of the floodplain, but it put others in it who weren't in it before.

    Many of the cities we see today where people are in floodplains had valuable infrastructure built before anyone knew it was a floodplain. I'm sure that was the case in Houston and New Orleans.

    Half of San Diego seems to be in high hazard fire zone, and every ten years or so, they have a big fire that burns down a big chunk of Rancho Bernardo. Even without federal fire insurance, those lots get rebuilt--because they're so valuable.

  • BYODB||

    People were well aware New Orleans and Houston were risky propositions but at least in the case of Nola it was too useful as a Port city. They were so well aware of it, in fact, that the oldest part of the City is still there because they built it on elevated land specifically to avoid the flooding and weather. Smart folks, those 'ancient' French. Apparently, a lot smarter than modern idiots that build in area's that are both worthless and get destroyed every decade or so.

  • sasob||

    Houston, also, was originally built as a "port city" to compete with and eventually surpass Galveston, and it is a much larger port today than Nola. Granted, there is a lot more goes on in Houston these days than just the Ship Channel and Turning Basin, but that was a main part of the original attraction. Before it was just Allen's Landing up the bayou, not too far from a little place called Harrisburg.

  • Ken Shultz||

    No question the federal government distorts the flood insurance market, and we'd be better off without their interference. But people would still rebuild in danger prone areas without that encouragement, and it's a good thing that the market for finance is able to work around such disasters--and build in them profitably because of entrepreneurial activity.

    I'm sure there is construction that wouldn't be financed without government flood insurance, and I'm sure there are areas that would be rebuilt--even without flood insurance. Houston and New Orleans make a lot of sense. You can't get people to build in Detroit even without the need for flood insurance.

  • Mark22||

    Abandoning valuable assets entirely because of a risk of flooding wouldn't even make sense in a totally free market.

    You can abandon or not abandon as you choose; just don't make me pay for the risks you take.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Object to being forced to pay for risks other people willingly take, just don't tell me that insurers, investors, and banks wouldn't build in flood plains if it weren't for government flood insurance--not that Bailey has said that here.

    Oh, and if the government comes along and decides your structure was built in a flood plain--back when no such designation was on that land previously--the government shouldn't necessarily force people to buy insurance.

    There's also an open libertarian question about the propriety of building in flood ways (as opposed to flood plains). Building in a flood way will change the course of the current in a 50-year flood event, meaning that other people whose property was out of the flood plain will unexpectedly find themselves being flooded in a 50-year flood event--specifically because you willingly chose to build a structure on your own property.

    Should people be free to build what they want on their own property?

    I think so.

    What if what they choose to build necessarily puts someone else's property in danger?

    In 2007, San Diego had to evacuate more than 500,000 people because of wildfires. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed. How do you feel about forced weed abatement in a city with that kind of risk?

  • Ken Shultz||

    If the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect our rights, it may have a legitimate role to play when people's rights overlap and conflict with each other. Adam Smith certainly believed so. Oh, and there's a strong argument to make that civilization itself owes its very existence to government settling these questions of conflicting rights, specifically in regards to irrigation, water rights, and flood control.

  • Jerryskids||

    Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

    Are you suggesting there are contrary opinions worth consideration? I realize there are "economists" that will argue the laws of supply and demand are subject to the laws of legislative bodies, but then again there are people that insist gravity's just a theory.

    As P J said, given that people are smart enough to voluntarily do what's in their best interest, any time the government's gotta pay you to do something they're paying you to do something stupid.

  • EscherEnigma||

    "[...] given that people are smart enough to voluntarily do what's in their best interest [...]"
    Um... no. I won't "give" you that. Not even for the purpose of a conversation. We have way too much evidence, ranging from repeatable experiments to endless anecdotal experience, for me to grant you that people are basically rational actors who act in their own best interest.

    I might grant you that people think they're acting in their own best interest, but people (as a group) suck at math, long-term planning, delayed gratification, and cause-and-effect for what they think is in their own best interest to match up to what is in their own best interest.

    In short: you're way more of an optimist then I am.

  • Jerryskids||

    Well, that and I'm not egotistical enough to decide I'm qualified to tell other people what's in their own best interest. Becoming a heroin addict doesn't seem to be in anybody's self-interest, yet plenty of people do it. That doesn't suggest to me that they're stupider than me, it just suggests that they really like heroin a lot more than me. It's a question of what something's worth and that's a subjective opinion.

  • Cy||

    "I might grant you that people think they're acting in their own best interest, but people (as a group) suck at math, long-term planning, delayed gratification, and cause-and-effect for what they think is in their own best interest to match up to what is in their own best interest."

    People suck at math and long term planning because there've been 3 generation that are programmed to think that the Government will handle the Math and the Long Term planning. In their defence, the government has happily take on the role of Mathematician and Planner. They abuse the shit of it.

    In the famous words of government:

    "Let's not let this crisis go to waste."

    or..

    "I'm from the government and I'm here to help!"

    If you feel like throwing up a little in your mouth, watch some of the blatant federal propaganda movies Hollywood put out in the 1930-1950's.

  • EscherEnigma||

    ... I love it when you folks try to shoe-horn in your anti-government bias to a discussion of base human nature.

  • BYODB||

    Government and human nature are intertwined.

  • Born Again Username||

    "... there are people that insist gravity's just a theory."

    Until a decade(s?) ago, gravity could ONLY be considered a theory. I don't know the field well enough to know if, at this point, gravity is a theory or true. My guess is that gravity is still a theory.

  • Ron||

    everyone says don't build in "X' because of "Y" problem. the problem with that is there is no place without a problem. flooding, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, fires extreme draught or extreme snow there is no place to hide. that said wherever you build your insurance should be between you and your insurer the government has no right to susidize some more than others

  • Red Twilight||

    Fuck all that, should Ted Cruz, Gohmert, Cornyn etc. in Congress stick by their principles and not demand aid, like they refused to allow during Sandy?

  • Sevo||

    Why not go to some conservative board and ask, slimebag?

  • eyeroller||

    To be fair, a lot of the places flooding in Houston are outside the 100-year floodplain.

    (I'm not defending insurance subsidies -- just pointing out that this situation is not entirely the result of moral hazard.)

  • Roger Wilco||

    ^^ this this this this this this this this this this this this

  • Ron Bailey||

    e: I was trying earlier today to match flooded areas with the flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs), but could find nothing definitive. Will keep an eye out for that data. What is interesting, is that the Trump administration wants to strip $190 million from the FEMA budget to update the FIRMs in order to help pay for his military build up. Had Congress not created the NFIP in 1968, private sector insurers would have created such maps and sold flood insurance to people at relatively low risk.

  • Sevo||

    "As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt."

    Hmmm. I wonder who will end up with THAT bill.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Millenials and their kids.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Izzis the same Texas Katherine Hayhoe swore would in a "permanent drought" as of 2011?

  • Merl3noir||

    Sounds good, however personal experience leaves me thinking it's a little more difficult than just that. The house I grew up in was not originally in the flood plain. Starting in the 80's they decided that to protect houses and roads that were in the flood zone. While our house was closest to the creek during floods it would flood a 3 block area that was all lower elevation. To prevent flooding so many houses they build up flood controls and emergency plans, that as an end result, ended up flooding our house. As a result our house that never was in the flood plain, ended up in the flood plain, and houses at a lower elevation are listed as at risk.
    Due to changes made by the government it ended up in the flood plain, and houses that used to be in the flood plain, are moved to at risk of flooding. I certainly see the motivation of the government, they can have 2 dozen houses and a couple miles of road way flooded regularly, or 4 houses flooded during the hundred year floods. However my Dad as owner of one of the 4 houses was not thrilled that his house is suddenly listed as being in the flood plain. And since it is a government decision that put our house into the flood plain, it does not seem like we should be forced to pay for the extra risk, especially when the reason our house was put into the flood plain was to save money by reducing the risk for many more houses and infrastructure.

  • BYODB||

    Look if we've learned one thing from the ACA it's that insurance is a human right even though it's financially unsustainable, has adverse effects on the market, provides perverse incentives, and ultimately doesn't help people despite the massive cost.


    What don't we understand about this?


    So build away in a flood plain, it's an investment in a future government bailout!


    /sarc

  • Dallas Jay||

    I am confused by the message of this article: Are the taxpayers and the government supposed to reduce and eliminate subsidization of the reparation after a "once in a million" catastrophic weather event? Or is the author telling the citizens of the Fourth Largest City in America, in addition to those in neighboring cities and towns, to dismantle everything they have worked hard to build and maintain over the years only to be forced to start from scratch elsewhere? The latter response seems to be counterintuitive to my interpretation of the libertarian response to encourage the people to grow and maintain the independent and productive lifestyle wherever in our country they desire to "set up shop".

  • Robert Arvanitis||

    There is random (as in terrorist attack) and there is actuarially predictable (as in flood, earthquake, lava flow.)
    Today with insurance-linked securities, there is no lack of risk-bearing capacity. So we look to the pricing of that capacity. If you get X benefits from a location but the free market in insurance charges Y, then you do the arithmetic. (Hint if X - Y > 0, give it a go, presuming you can tolerate the standard deviation...)

  • Credo MacKenzie||

    "People who choose to build and live on flood plains"

    The author makes it sound like people are buying plots of land and building homes themselves when it's actually private developers. Isn't that the free market? Should be arguing for better infrastructure and regulations.

    Millions of Americans live in flood plains. Millions of Americans live in earthquake zones, tornado zones... good luck telling millions they shouldn't live where they are because of a less than 1% chance of something bad happening. Insurance is a small price compared to the countless billions these regions bring in.

  • Robert Arvanitis||

    By all means build in floodplains, IF you do the cost/benefit analysis.
    Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman empire because of the life-giving floods.
    And if today the valleys are likewise the most fertile land, reap the crops. But put some aside for the drowned years.
    Just do the math yourself, for your own gain, at your own risk.

  • mpercy||

    "More than 2,100 properties across the U.S. enrolled in the National Flood Insurance Program have flooded and been rebuilt more than 10 times since 1978, according to a new analysis of insurance data by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). One home in Batchelor, Louisiana has flooded 40 times over the past four decades, receiving $428,379 in insurance payments. More than 30,000 properties in the program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have flooded multiple times over the years. Those homes, known as "severe repetitive loss properties," make up just 0.6 percent of federal flood insurance policies. But they account for 10.6 percent of the program's claims — totaling $5.5 billion in payments.

    http://e360.yale.edu/digest/th....._louisiana

    Maybe someone is unlucky and their home is hit by a 500 year flood. I get it. But why do we allow the above? After the first flood claim, a property owner should be removed from the program. We should not insure flood-prone properties with taxpayer dollars.

    Maybe if the rebuilt property is on stilts and say 2 feet above the previous incident's highest level, i.e., unlikely to result in another claim even if a similar incident were to occur.

    This would leave beaches and riverfronts to be filled with houses owned by millionaires who can afford to self-insure or pay for outrageous private flood insurance, but I'm ok with that.

  • the_strickler||

    God just gave us a pretty obvious market on where to and not to build. Now, we should take the disaster money and dig a huge reservoir in the worst of the flooded areas and use the dug up earth to raise the height of the not so bad areas. They also need to install some sort of real drainage system.
    .
    Now if that seems somewhat logical, it is a certainty that it won't be done because government hates permanent solutions. It has a tendency to reduce demand for more government.

  • MoulanaRafi||

    Thanks for the newest information and aware about the current news.... Love astrologer in India.... Good work.

  • p3orion||

    In real estate, buyers will often choose not to buy a given property (or be unable to qualify for the mortgage) once they find out that flood insurance is required and how much that insurance costs. But the public subsidy for NFIP simply passes much of the actual expense onto other taxpayers, who have no say in whether it's a good idea to buy that particular property.

    Market forces work well, but only when they are allowed to work.

  • JFree||

    This is one reason why the federal govt should partially fund itself by charging states some sort of a land value tax. A lot of infrastructure is geographic in nature and charging the states directly would force the discussion of what is actually interstate, what is intrastate, what infrastructure is necessary and general, what is regional.

  • geo||

    "Don't build in flood plains, and especially don't rebuild in flood plains. " That is a huge oversimplification of the problem. Most of the people now flooded in Houston did NOT build in flood plains. The flood plains changed due to building over an area the size of the entire state of Connecticut. The reality is that even without flood insurance, major portions of the population that live near coasts or major waterways are going to need help sooner or later.

    While we are fixing flood insurance, please add, don't allow Federal Flood Insurance on landslides in California such as those that protected homes built in the edges of cliffs in Laguna Beach! Please add Miami, Florida to the "do not protect list" as most of Miami is flood prone and the average elevation of Miami is only 6 ft. Then there is New Orleans which is on average 6 feet below sea level. And New York City which was built on a swamp. Houston may be a good example of the problem, but Houston is far from being the worst offender in abuse of flood insurance or the best example. In reality, the flood insurance program should be eliminated completely, not modified. If it could be justified, the government would not have to provide it.

  • Alvin Clark||

    I think there is no end of journey our whole life is a journey.it start with the born and continue till the end of our life.Thanks for the sharing awesome info with us. Norton Activate

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online