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The Future Of Flood Insurance


Flooding has been a huge problem in the central part of the country this spring. People are losing crops, property, businesses, houses. And that's sure to bring a lot of claims to the government's flood insurance program, which is federally funded and mired in debt. NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher is here to explain the future of flood insurance as climate change makes flooding more likely. Hey there.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. How did the flood insurance situation get so broken?

HERSHER: Well, it actually starts back in the late '60s. So there had been a bunch of really bad floods in the central U.S. People were dying. Farmers were going bankrupt. And there really wasn't a good insurance regime. So Congress stepped in and said, the federal government will do this, we will insure people against flood losses. And it worked out for a while, actually. But flooding has gotten worse and worse in recent decades, and so the program has started racking up claims than it can pay for with the premiums. And it has billions of dollars in debt at this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why not just raise premiums then? If floods are happening more then flood insurance should be more expensive, right?

HERSHER: Yeah. That has happened. But the flood risk has gotten so high, and the program has taken on so much debt that the costs have just gotten totally out of control. So a lot of people who live in flood-prone areas, who live along the coast or along rivers, say they can't afford it anymore. So for example, I met this couple in Arkansas. Their names are Christy and Jason Trantina (ph). They have a convenience store. It's right on the Arkansas River. Their flood insurance got 10 times more expensive between 2006 and 2016, and so they just decided to get rid of it.

CHRISTY TRANTINA: I mean, nobody feels good about letting go of insurance. We all like insurance. But when it's not feasible for you then we just decided to let it go.

HERSHER: And now they're really having to deal with that decision because the Arkansas River is flooding, their store is underwater, and they're going to have to rebuild it all on their own.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So just listening to that story, you can see that it's so important to get this right. So how can it be fixed?

HERSHER: Well, it depends on who you ask. Certainly, in the short term, we need a way to get the National Flood Insurance Program out of debt, get rid of those billions of dollars that are on their books. And most people agree that they need new maps to convey risk better. But we also need a way to plan ahead and take action before floods happen. This is what we call flood mitigation. And I talked to the former head of the National Flood Insurance Program Roy Wright about this.

ROY WRIGHT: A great national flood insurance program finds a way to couple mitigation and insurance together.

HERSHER: So right now, he's actually the head of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety so I think it's really notable there that he's talking about going beyond insurance policies. When he talks about mitigation, that word, he's talking about having the government help pay for stuff that makes flooding less damaging, even preparing for flooding before it happens. That's stuff like raising buildings higher, maybe putting in flood walls, updating drainage systems - stuff that's collective that addresses things at the community level, not just for individual homes and businesses, like, one-off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, Rebecca, that feels really important right now because of climate change, of course.

HERSHER: Yes. And floods are getting dramatically more expensive, in part because people love living in flood-prone areas. And climate change is making seas get higher. It's making rainstorms worse. So flood insurance policy, the nitty-gritty of how much it costs, who can afford it, how we deal with flood risk - that is climate policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher.

Thank you so much.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.