Op eds

This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal on June 12, 2017. 

This article is signed by Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), John Kennedy (R., La.), Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Thad Cochran (R., Miss.).

Powerful floods devastate communities across America every year. After these catastrophic natural disasters, too many Americans find themselves facing a man-made calamity: a National Flood Insurance Program that overcharges and underdelivers for policyholders and for taxpayers.

The Sept. 30 expiration of the law authorizing the NFIP represents an opportunity to address the waste, abuse and mismanagement plaguing the system. As members of the Senate Banking and Appropriations committees, which oversee flood insurance and provide federal disaster response, we plan to offer bipartisan landmark legislation to tackle systemic problems with flood insurance and to reframe our entire disaster paradigm.

Today, more homeowners are abandoning national flood insurance policies because their premiums continue to rise, despite the emergency relief measures Congress approved in 2014. With the NFIP becoming more insolvent day by day, we must get this program back on solid fiscal ground. But we cannot build a sustainable system by simply imposing higher premiums on homeowners. We must address the program’s critical problems: unsustainability, low participation rates, inaccurate flood maps, indifference to the benefits of flood control infrastructure, agency mismanagement, unsustainable debt service costs and contractor profiteering.

The time has come to make an ambitious national reinvestment in cost-effective flood control and mitigation that reduces risk across the country. Under the current system, FEMA spent more than $277 billion in disaster aid to rebuild communities after floods from 2005 to 2014, but only a fraction of that on efforts to stop or control floodwaters to avert disasters. Our current system is backward. Rebuilding communities after a disaster is far more expensive than working proactively to reduce or prevent their devastation. FEMA has found that every dollar spent on mitigation generates at least $4 in future savings, and some major federal flood-control projects have seen a return on investment of approximately 54 to 1.

Our legislation will apply these lessons by moving us toward proactive flood prevention and mitigation. By ending FEMA’s reliance on antiquated flood maps and encouraging the use of cutting-edge technologies, we can create more-accurate nationwide flood-hazard mapping. These changes would improve the NFIP’s long-term solvency while better protecting our communities, local economies and the environment.

To pay for these critical investments, we propose three key reforms: a temporary freeze on interest on the NFIP debt; elimination of agency waste, mismanagement and contractor profiteering; and increasing NFIP enrollment. 

The NFIP has paid the federal government $4 billion in interest over the last decade, payments that swallow more than 10% of all premiums. Beyond the folly of the federal government charging itself interest, these dollars would be better spent on premium affordability and cost-effective community flood prevention. Temporarily freezing interest on the debt would not forgive what is owed, but it would free up policyholder-contributed dollars for necessary investments in state-of-the-art flood mapping and property mitigation.

At the same time, our bill will generate savings by eliminating waste in FEMA’s Write Your Own program. Currently, private insurers selling NFIP policies pocket at least 31 cents of every premium dollar while bearing no financial risk. Our plan will cap compensation to private insurance companies, putting affordable premiums over runaway industry profits. 

Finally, our legislation will put people first. In the aftermath of severe floods, coastal and inland communities across our country have learned that the deck is often stacked against policyholders. In recent years, FEMA and its contractors have spent millions of dollars fighting property owners with legitimate claims. The current system has given rise to a cottage industry of entities that profit by needlessly prolonging costly court disputes over flood claims. Most flood victims cannot afford protracted legal battles, but these entities faced no limit to the time they can spend in court on the taxpayers’ dime. To correct this unseemly situation, our plan will give the federal government the tools it needs to remove bad actors and better defend itself in court.

We cannot control the disasters nature sends our way. But we can control how we prepare for and respond to such events. Americans deserve a National Flood Insurance Program that is sustainable for taxpayers, affordable for homeowners, and accountable to everyone. Affordable flood insurance, when accompanied by effective flood prevention and mitigation tools, helps to achieve this vital mission. In an era of severe flooding, our legislation will better protect our communities and put our National Flood Insurance Program on a more sustainable, affordable and accountable path.