Storm Resiliency Enters Senate Debate on Flood Insurance

By Dean Scott

Senate Democrats who have shied away from talking about whether climate change helped fuel hurricanes Harvey and Irma now say they are likely to raise a related issue—the need for more resilient infrastructure—in an upcoming debate on the federal flood insurance program.

The National Flood Insurance Program underwrites the vast majority of U.S. flood policies and has been under scrutiny for years. It was set to expire Sept. 30, but a congressional deal extended it into December. That sets the stage for a debate over such issues as how to dissuade home owners from rebuilding on sites continually threatened by storms, whether to expand coverage for business interruption for smaller firms, and whether flood maps can be updated more often.

Democrats itching to highlight how climate change may be worsening storms say a good place to start may the debate over how to ensure new and rebuilt structures are more resilient to hurricanes.

“I certainly hope and expect there to be an open-minded conversation about resilience in order to protect taxpayer dollars,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is introducing legislation to revamp the program, told Bloomberg BNA. “If you want to save taxpayer dollars, then you’ve got to invest in resilience because it just doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to be paying for the same thing over and over.”

Which Brand?

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who serves in Republican leadership, said the short-term deal only staved off the inevitable need to provide long-term stability for the flood insurance program, which hasn’t gotten a multiyear reauthorization since 2012.

“We need to deal with flood insurance reauthorization for sure, and these [storms] obviously, I think, give additional sense of urgency to that,” Thune told reporters Sept. 19.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said he and other Democrats see an opening to debate the role of climate change in severe weather, an issue that has gained little traction with the Republican majority in Congress. Some rebranding may be needed, he said.

“The one thing I’m wondering about is, what if we call it severe weather, because climate change has become a brand only Democrats feel comfortable with,” Schatz told Bloomberg BNA. “I don’t care what you call it. But it’s there for all to see.”

Banking Panel

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee have been laying the groundwork for a long-term reauthorization for months or even years in some cases.

The program was approaching its $30 billion borrowing limit when Congress agreed to a short-term extension signed by President Donald Trump Sept. 8, ensuring continued funding through Dec. 8.

Climate resilience is front and center in what is likely to be a push to reinstate President Barack Obama’s Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, an executive order that Trump revoked in August. Obama’s 2015 order—one of a series of actions he took to address climate issues in the absence of congressional action—called on federal agencies to consider current and future risk for federally funded projects in floodplains such as roads, bridges, and hospitals.

Trump reversed the order, citing the need to streamline infrastructure permitting. But a coalition of insurance representatives and environmental and housing groups called SmarterSafer is backing efforts by Van Hollen and Schatz to reinstate it.

“When federal funds are being used to build or rebuild structures or to subsidize structures, the government should ensure the taxpayer investments are being made in safe, resilient ways,” the SmartSafer group said in a Sept. 14 letter.

Flood Mitigation Savings

Ceres—an alliance of investor, public interest, and environmental groups—also is urging Trump to reverse his August order.

“Models show that extreme weather events will increase in frequency and severity in the coming decades,” the group wrote Trump Sept. 13. The letter cited Federal Emergency Management Agency figures that suggest every dollar invested in flood mitigation saves an average of four dollars during rebuilding.

The top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said Congress needs to debate the need for more resilient residential and commercial construction in regions likely to be damaged by severe flooding.

“If I was the chairman of the banking committee, I would be scheduling a hearing on this, like, next week,” Carper told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s an issue that belongs in that committee, and they should claim jurisdiction.”

The banking panel’s chairman, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), told Bloomberg BNA he has made no decision on holding hearings.

Crapo and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the banking committee’s top Democrat, have backed a six-year reauthorization of the NFIP. The bill they introduced July 17 ( S. 1571) seeks to improve the program through better mapping and risk mitigation.

Others on the committee, such as Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), back a competing bill but say they are open to other approaches to get a multiyear flood insurance extension. Kennedy is cosponsoring a bill offered by fellow committee member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)—the Sustainable, Affordable, Fair, and Efficient (SAFE) National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act ( S. 1368)—cosponsored by banking panel Democrats Van Hollen and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I).

“I’m ready to do it now,” Kennedy told Bloomberg BNA. “I have a bill that has bipartisan support. [But] if they don’t want to do my bill and want to do something better, then let’s go do it.”

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