Charlie Crist: Congress should make flood insurance accessible, affordable

Published Jul. 25, 2017

Floods can happen anywhere and at any time. The National Flood Insurance Program has provided peace of mind and economic security to millions of American families and property owners for nearly five decades. For many, NFIP is the only choice they have for protection against floods.

And our state is the biggest player. We are home to nearly 40 percent of all NFIP policies and paid nearly $1 billion into the program last year. On top of that, we are ground zero for rising sea levels, hurricanes and other severe weather events. It's clear that our housing market and our economy depend on NFIP and would collapse without it. With authorization of the program expiring on Sept. 30, Congress should pass a reauthorization bill on time and strengthen this vital program so it works better for our homeowners and business owners — providing affordable, dependable coverage in Florida and across the country.

The biggest challenge facing NFIP is how to balance the solvency of the program with the rising costs of premiums. One of NFIP's structural challenges is that it is deeply in debt — to the tune of $25 billion. While NFIP worked well for decades, larger, more powerful storms are occurring at higher frequencies. The catastrophic damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, along with several other severe weather and inland flooding events, have plunged the program into debt.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. The reality is that sea levels are on the rise and severe weather is occurring more often. This means NFIP will only become more important for Florida families.

Unfortunately, some in Congress want to hold NFIP policyholders entirely accountable for our changing climate and weather patterns by placing the financial burden of NFIP's debt squarely on their shoulders.

An example of this is the approval of the 21st Century Flood Reform Act by the House Financial Services Committee last month — along a near party-line vote. As a member of the committee, I offered two amendments to address serious concerns surrounding the accessibility and affordability of flood insurance under the bill. Unfortunately, those amendments were voted down (also along party lines), and I made the hard decision to oppose the bill.

The NFIP must be reauthorized on time. But the program's solvency should not be balanced on the backs of hard-working, middle-class families who have done the right thing. Ultimately, if homeowners can't afford flood insurance, they won't buy it.

In fact, some policyholders have already chosen to drop coverage because it's too expensive. Since Congress raised rates in 2012, there has been a nearly 10 percent decline in the number of NFIP policies nationwide. This leaves hundreds of thousands of additional families without coverage, and it puts the federal government — and thus the taxpayers — on the hook for clean-up costs.

It is also important to point out that Congress directed FEMA to subsidize and grandfather certain types of properties — practices that keep rates affordable and support Florida homeowners. These are also practices that have recently come under fire and would be rapidly phased out or eliminated under the 21st Century Flood Reform Act.

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So why exactly did Congress want to keep rates low in the first place? To promote participation, of course. It comes down to this: affordability and participation go hand in hand. And greater participation means a broader spread of risk, more money coming into the program, and thus a stronger financial footing for NFIP.

Thankfully, there is bipartisan work being done to strengthen the program and make it more affordable for policyholders. I am proud to be a co-sponsor of the SAFE NFIP Act, which was introduced in the House by my friend, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., and in the Senate by a group of bipartisan lawmakers, including Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio from Florida.

From freezing interest payments on the debt to providing affordability assistance for those who need it most to promoting better mapping technology, the SAFE NFIP Act moves the program in the right direction. I am proud of our bipartisan commitment to NFIP and I urge the rest of my colleagues to join in this endeavor.

As geographer Gilbert F. White once said: "Floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man." Congress has the power and responsibility to limit families' losses by reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program in a way that keeps flood insurance accessible and affordable for decades to come.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, wrote this article exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.