FISK: Harvey, Irma underscore need for flood insurance reforms

opens in a new windowFISK: Harvey, Irma underscore need for flood insurance reforms by Ray Fisk

Katrina. Sandy. Harvey. And now Irma. In a dozen years we’ve seen hurricane devastation in this country that, with each new storm, is harder to comprehend. The damage to property and infrastructure is staggering.

The human suffering breaks our hearts. After Katrina, more than a third of New Orleans residents left the city and never came back. Many of those former New Orleaneans moved to Houston to start a new life and have now experienced biblical flooding a second time. Here in New Jersey, Sandy evacuees returned to find homes without walls, treasured belongings buried in sand and salt water — or to find no home at all. As in New Orleans, some Sandy victims also abandoned or sold their properties for a song. Nearly five years later, families are still trying to recover or simply come home.

We share the pain of Texas and Florida because we know what their residents are experiencing. And what they will endure with FEMA, insurance nightmares and emotional exhaustion. We know it will take years, perhaps a lifetime, to get beyond this.

So we put aside disagreements we have as a nation and we do all we can to help our fellow Americans in need. We donate money to relief organizations, we donate supplies and clothing, we volunteer. We need to do this now — and especially in the coming months.

I remember what that support felt like. Immediately after Sandy, camping out in my storm-damaged home, without heat, electricity, water, or sewer — having to enter with a ladder — I remember feeling grateful to have the Louisiana State Police guarding my isolated road through the salt marsh. And more gratitude a week later when a convoy of Alabama Power trucks rolled in. Distant relatives offered to come to the Shore and help; neighbors helped neighbors; strangers just showed up to lend a hand.

During the recovery, it was a luxury to feel much at all. But emotions overwhelmed me when, at a community Thanksgiving dinner at Southern Regional Middle School, my wife and I picked through donated clothing for coats, hats, and gloves. Our winter clothes had washed away in Sandy. Most of us can’t imagine being in this position, accepting donations; it’s humbling. But this connection with caring, anonymous people is incredibly powerful and affirming. We offer that to Texas and Florida as well.

We can also offer some hard lessons. “The system” doesn’t always work for those in need. As storm survivors, we want to make sure others don’t repeat our experiences. We can improve the system.

There will be more devastating storms: We’re a nation with huge flood risks not just along our coasts, but inland as well. But we have a broken flood insurance system. For many working families it is unaffordable. We need to reimagine an affordable system that provides incentives to reduce repetitive losses and discourages future risky development. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is up for renewal in Congress this year. We desperately need to fix it.

The SAFE-NFIP bill, introduced in the House and Senate, has the bipartisan support of legislators from New Jersey (and other coastal states including Louisiana and Florida). Its goal is to make flood insurance more affordable while at the same time mitigate skyrocketing future losses. It’s a start.

Among the key strategies: It ensures premiums don’t price families out of protection; makes mitigation funds and programs available to policyholders and communities before disasters to prevent future losses; requires FEMA to use accurate flood mapping technology; ensures the legal system isn’t stacked against policyholders and makes an appeals system begun after Sandy permanent.

I believe future policy should also take into account the impact of climate change and sea level rise and include an optional buyout exit for homeowners who don’t want to, or can’t rebuild. That land can then become open space and serve as a flood buffer.

We may be repeating the same mistakes if we don’t get reforms like this through Congress.

Hopefully Harvey and Irma are also new wake-up calls for us in New Jersey. We are, unbelievably, a coastal state without a strategy for sea level rise. That needs to change. Our shoreline state, with so many residents vulnerable at, or near, sea level, cries out for smart long-term planning so that our communities can be more resilient when another superstorm heads our way.

Ray Fisk, of Eagleswood, is the publisher of books including “Great Storms of the Jersey Shore” and “Surviving Sandy” and a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project. His office and home were severely damaged in superstorm Sandy.