Overhaul of flood insurance stalls in Congress

WASHINGTON — Despite promising changes, Congress has shown little enthusiasm for taking the unpopular steps that experts say are necessary to fix the nation’s main flood insurance program.

Recent flooding in the Midwest has brought the issue back to the forefront. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, back-to-back storms in 2005, dispelled any notion that the insurance program was self-sustaining. They threw it roughly $20 billion into debt and called attention to major structural flaws.

Nearly everyone acknowledges it cannot pay off the debt, much less pay for losses in future storms. But so far, Congress has done little more than raise the program’s borrowing limit, essentially handing taxpayers a series of shaky IOUs.

A failure to act could leave the public vulnerable to large bailouts of the program and help perpetuate a false confidence among some property owners that they do not need coverage.

“The early rhetoric was, ‘We’re going to fix this. We’re not going to tolerate this continued exposure of taxpayers to unlimited subsidies,’ ” “’ said Robert Hunter, a former director of the flood program who now oversees insurance issues for the Consumer Federation of America. “They’ve done nothing to fix it. It’s just unbelievable.”

The National Flood Insurance Program was created in 1968 to protect homeowners and reduce federal costs from natural disasters. Run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it provides nearly all the flood coverage in the United States. Private agents sell the policies. Homeowners can get up to $250,000 in structural coverage and an additional $100,000 for contents.

On average, residential premiums are about $400 per $100,000 of coverage. The rates typically do not reflect the real risks and therefore shift costs from policyholders to taxpayers generally.

After the deadly 2005 hurricane season, the Government Accountability Office added the program to a short list of “high risk” areas in the government that the agency believes deserve urgent attention.

The starting point for an overhaul, experts say, is raising rates for the more than 5 million policyholders, particularly those with high-risk coastal properties or vacation homes who pay heavily subsidized rates. Other recommendations include requiring coverage in more areas, enforcing tougher building and land-use policies, and updating old flood maps so homeowners know their true risks.

“To really fix the program doesn’t include a great deal of good news,” said David John, an expert on insurance policy at The Heritage Foundation. “For a politician, this is a no-win situation. But unfortunately, delay makes it a no-win situation for the taxpayer.”

Legislation addressing some of the issues stalled last year.

This year, the House has made some progress. But critics say a bill passed by the House Financial Services Committee last month barely tackles the problem.

The bill includes only modest rate increases, allowing premiums to rise a maximum of 15 percent per year instead of the current cap of 10 percent. The measure has drawn attention largely for a provision to expand the program by adding wind coverage.

The committee chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the bill is aimed at gradually putting the program on sound financial footing. Trying to fix the problems overnight would be a “very serious blow” to policyholders, he said.

The bill, Frank and his aides noted, doubles spending on flood mapping. Starting in 2011, it would allow higher premium increases of up to 25 percent a year or the riskiest and most heavily subsidized vacation properties and second homes.

“The bill will reduce the level of subsidy,” he said.

But Frank dismissed questions about the massive debt, calling it a loan from one government agency to another.

Hunter, who worked in the Ford and Carter administrations, said that “the money doesn’t come from nowhere. The taxpayers pay it.”

John said that if the hurricane that hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula this past week had aimed toward the East Coast, “you would have yet again multibillion-dollar bailouts.”

He added, “I firmly believe that people should be able to live wherever they want to live, but they should also then bear the cost of doing so.”

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