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  1. Opinion

How Washington can help Florida prepare for hurricanes | Column

Better mitigation efforts, more sophisticated flood mapping and sound flood insurance are critical.
A member of the Florida National Guard walks along what is left of Alligator Drive in Alligator Point in October, one day after Hurricane Michael hit the area.
A member of the Florida National Guard walks along what is left of Alligator Drive in Alligator Point in October, one day after Hurricane Michael hit the area.
Published Sep. 13, 2019
Stefanie Sekich-Quinn [Courtesy of Stefanie Sekich-Quinn]

BY STEFANIE SEKICH-QUINN

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

With hurricane season under way, Florida lawmakers have urged residents to “prepare for the worst.” While creating disaster preparedness kits is a worthy goal, more must be done to arm people in vulnerable states. It’s critical that legislators consider meaningful reforms to the federal flood insurance program to better protect those at risk, including taxpayers and the environment.

Last year provided a glimpse into the true destruction that hurricanes can cause, with communities still struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle. In fact, insured losses for homes and businesses from the storm have ballooned to $6.6 billion and thousands of Floridians are still awaiting unpaid claims.

With natural disasters predicted to continue to increase, legislators must come together to develop fiscally sound, environmentally responsible disaster policy.

Investing in mitigation efforts is a good financial decision with proven results. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 invested in mitigation funding can save the country $6 in post-disaster costs. In the case of river flooding, the savings are a $7-to-$1 benefit for proactive mitigation steps such as demolishing or acquiring flood-prone buildings.

Accurate mapping is essential to protecting Floridians from the next storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency must be required to ensure that mapping data has greater engineering confidence and also includes property-level elevation information gathered through light detection and ranging surveys, a proven technique to develop accurate high-resolution maps. Without better mapping, homeowners may be misled about flood risks and future sea-level rise, along with being burdened by having to obtain expensive elevation certificates.

Equally as critical, FEMA must work to identify ‘'flood hotspots,'’ which are communities with significant numbers of severe repetitive loss properties and properties at high flood risk. To further prioritize communities for initial investment, FEMA should also apply an environmental justice screen and overlay a map of vulnerable communities, such as the EPA’s new environmental justice mapping and screening tool. FEMA should then work with hot spot communities to develop plans to reduce flood risk, with a priority for nature-based, non-structural mitigation.

In order to ensure the fiscal soundness of the flood program, properties must also be gradually phased to risk-based rates coupled with mitigation assistance and affordability measures for those who are low-income. For too long, the federal government has masked risk through subsidized rates, resulting in a program deeply in debt to taxpayers. Where cost-effective, subsidies should be used for mitigation to reduce risk. To ensure solvency, FEMA should continue to use reserve funds and reinsurance to manage and reduce risk.

With the cost of natural disasters on an upward trend and experts predicting mass flooding this hurricane season, a strong and sustainable National Flood Insurance Program is more important than ever.

Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program is a policy area with rare bipartisan support. There is no excuse to drop the ball.

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn is the Coastal Preservation Manager at the Surfrider Foundation and is a member of SmarterSafer.org. SmarterSafer.org is united in favor of environmentally responsible, fiscally sound approaches to natural catastrophe policy that promotes public safety.

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