The Elephant in the Flood

Businesses in Humble, Texas, are surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Flood insurance suffers from actuarial issues that health insurance doesn’t. Whereas health insurance (theoretically) depends on people who need less care subsidizing those who need more, everyone who buys flood insurance needs it — and when catastrophic flooding happens, insurance has to pay out thousands of people at once. Efforts to revamp flood insurance programs move in fits and starts, securing payouts can be a challenge, and no one’s really sure if raising rates or privatizing the insurance programs to make them more financially feasible will actually help. Kate Aronoff walks us through all the policy implications at The Intercept.

The even bigger policy question is whether higher and more competitive rates will actually incentivize fewer people to live along high-risk coastlines, or just leave the shore open only to those wealthy homeowners and developers who can afford higher rates and round after round of rebuilding. President Donald Trump also repealed an Obama-era mandate for flood-prone construction, so there’s no guarantee that new shorefront structures will be able to withstand future damage. The result of higher rates, Elliot predicts, “is the socioeconomic transformation along with the physical transformation of the coastlines.”

Of course, the elephant wading through the flood is the fact that there are now millions of people living in areas that shouldn’t be inhabited at all, no matter the cost. “There’s the uncertainty of living at risk,” Elliot says, “and there’s the uncertainty of what it means to stay in your community when in the near to medium term, it’s going to become more expensive for you to do so — and in the long term, physically impossible.”

All we do know: as climate change continues, there are only going to be more floods. And while the words “insurance actuarial tables” might make your eyes glaze over, the need to rebuild or relocate from flood zones is going to become an issue for more and more people.

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