It's always helpful to learn lessons from hurricanes that might be useful to those of us who are threatened by them six months of every year.Unfortunately, some of the lessons many will learn the hard way from Hurricane Florence are repeats from past storms. Here are two of them:
1. Only 3 percent of North Carolina homeowners have flood insurance.
The figure is 9 percent in South Carolina and 2 percent in Georgia. I haven’t seen the figures for some of the other states Florence threatens to inundate, but I would be surprised if they are much higher.
I wrote about these figures in July because the next time a hurricane hits Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes here in Louisiana, the residents here will find themselves in the same predicament that is about to play out along the East Coast.
Thousands of homeowners in Florence’s path are going to face the brutal reality that their homes — for many, their greatest investment — have been destroyed and that they will get little or no financial help to rebuild. Homeowners’ insurance does not pay for flood damage. The National Flood Insurance Program is the only institution that does that — but only for people who buy policies.
Americans are about to hear the tearful pleas of Florence victims who lack the financial means to rebuild their lives. The trauma will play out in Congress, where lawmakers from flood-stricken communities will work to introduce taxpayer-financed bailout packages, but those that manage to pass won’t come close to making people whole.
The same misery resulted after the 2016 floods that inundated much of Louisiana, causing an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion in property damage. The most money each uninsured homeowner could expect from federal aid was $33,000, while the average payout was closer to $10,000.
And, unless something changes drastically, the same sad scenario will occur here the next time a major storm hits. In Terrebonne and Lafourche, only about 30 percent of homeowners have flood insurance. Maybe they will listen and learn from unfortunate Florence victims who will reflect on their losses and, in many cases, question how it could happen in place that never flooded before.
2. The U.S. flood insurance program remains broken.
More than 400,000 homeowners in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia have flood insurance, with $106 billion in combined coverage. R.J Lehmann, a flood insurance specialist with the R Street Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told the McClatchy news agency that if 10 percent of those homeowners suffer flood damage, the program could face at least $10 billion in claims.
"This program since 2004 has borrowed $40 billion from taxpayers and has only paid back less than $3 billion of that money," Lehmann said in the story. "That is a direct subsidy from people who are not at risk to people who are at risk."
Anybody who has followed this issue knows Congress has delayed reforms for years, and one of the results is that the National Flood Insurance Program is more than $25 billion in debt. Lawmakers tried in 2012 with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which sought to align policies’ cost with the actual risk of flooding. Congress scuttled the law, however, after some homeowners in south Louisiana and other flood-prone areas saw costs rise from a few hundred dollars a year to $20,000 or more. Unaffordable insurance costs threatened to render homes worthless — too costly to insure against flooding for both the current owner and anyone who might buy the house later.
The House passed a measure in November that includes some reforms, though Louisiana lawmakers expressed concerns about potential price increases. While Congress debates the issue, it has granted a series of short-term extensions to keep the flood-insurance program from expiring. The last one, passed in July, extends the program through Nov. 30, the day hurricane season ends.
Keith Magill, executive editor of The Courier and Daily Comet in Houma and Thibodaux, Louisiana, can be reached at (985) 857-2201 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CourierEditor.
What's your view? Write a letter to the editor.