On April 11, 2022, I read an outstanding guest editorial in the New York Times by Elizabeth Rush, a professor in the English Department at Brown University. The title: “I never would have bought this home if I knew it flooded.” It’s a story about the systemic causes of flooding and common-sense solutions that seem so difficult to implement politically…despite devastating consequences for so many flood victims.
A Kindred Spirit
Since Hurricane Harvey in 2017, I have covered many of the things Rush mentions. Reading about them in other parts of the country made me understand how the problems extend far beyond Harris County and Texas.
Rush starts by discussing how flooding seems to get worse each year. But hers is not just another climate change story. She also cites people filling in wetlands to put up strip malls, developing low-lying land, and flood maps that haven’t been updated for decades. Sound familiar?
Subtext of Deception
The unwritten subtext here is that of deception, although Rush never uses that word. Many of the people she interviewed felt deceived into buying flood-prone property, hence the title of her editorial.
The people she interviewed – both in government and the public – had many great recommendations:
- Don’t build where it floods.
- Stop recycling flooded properties.
- Disclose flood risks.
- Protect or restore ecologies that reduce flooding.
- Make flood insurance fair.
- Change the minimum requirements that communities must meet to be eligible to participate in the federal flood insurance program.
- Revise antiquated regs that permit development of flood prone parcels, and which only mandate raising them after they flood.
- Enforce the prohibition against selling federally subsidized flood insurance for newly built properties in areas likely to flood.
- Make disclosure of past flooding mandatory – for renters as well as buyers. (Texas has had it for buyers for several years now.) And as of January 1 this year, Texas also has it for renters if flooding happened within the last 5 years.
Difficulty of Political Change
I have talked about each of those recommendations for years now. But political change is hard. It requires picking winners and losers. And few politicians are willing to pick sides in those arguments, especially in Texas where property rights rule.
Regardless, one can’t help but wonder whether the current system is sustainable. The National Flood Insurance Program is $20 billion in the red and just this month FEMA fully transitioned to fully risk-based premiums.
Professor Rush closes with a poignant truth from Brock Long, a former head of FEMA. “Rebuilding disaster-devastated communities ultimately costs much more than implementing stronger codes and mitigation programs over time,” he said.
She also cites the National Association of Home Builders, which is fighting changes. She says, they “are trying to fend off reforms by arguing, in part, that they will make homes unaffordable, especially for low-income buyers. But when a flood hits, it’s the poorest who often suffer most.” And really! Does anyone ever find a flood affordable?
Rush is a gifted writer and researcher. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 based on her book about flooding: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. I highly recommend her essay and intend to buy her book.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/13/2022 based on an editorial by Elizabeth Rush in the New York Times
1688 Days since Hurricane Harvey