|Flooded Greenville, Mississippi, 1927|
President Obama recently signed a controversial bill that will directly affect the safety of millions of Americans. The fine print is so complicated, though, that it’s hard to predict exactly how our safety will be affected.
Some say that the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 brings desperately needed relief to property owners who face ruinous increases in their premiums for federal flood insurance. To supporters like Sen. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the law preserves the American dream of homeownership from ill-conceived intervention by “an irrational Washington force.”
Others see the new law as election-year pandering and a cowardly reversal of course. Just two years ago, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 in direct response to catastrophic damage from Superstorm Sandy. The 2012 law prescribed strong medicine to salvage the solvency of the flood insurance program from a shortfall of some $25 billion caused by insurance payouts after Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Before its rollback on Friday, the 2012 law would have quickly phased out federal subsidies until owners of flood-prone properties paid the true actuarial costs of their insurance. Some (but not all) properties that had been receiving subsidies saw 25 percent rate hikes. The 2012 law also required more accurate, up-to-date floodplain maps so that people could easily identify dangerous areas, but the new law relies on obsolete maps to assess premiums on existing homes.
It’s impossible to understand this legislative zigzag without understanding our century-long experiment with federal flood control.
Beginning early in the 20th century, Congress tried to engineer the nation out of danger by spending well over $100 billion (in current dollars) on federal levees and dams. But no structure is foolproof, and all have their limits. As one engineer explained, there are two kinds of levees: “Those that have failed and those that will fail!” Case in point—Katrina, a mere Category 3 hurricane, made short work of the Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal levees.