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Flood, Rebuild, Repeat: The Need for Flood Insurance Reform

The National Resources Defense Council takes a look at federal records on payments for ‘repetitive loss properties’ and suggests an alternative

A house near Prairieville, Louisiana, after street flooding in the fall of 2015.
Image Credit: Tobin / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr


Can you imagine living in a property that has flooded 10 times? How about 20 times? It’s hard to fathom enduring that kind of situation, yet owners of 2,109 properties across the United States experience just that. Not only has each of these properties flooded more than 10 times, but the National Flood Insurance Program has paid to rebuild them after each flood. One home in Batchelor, Louisiana, flooded 40 times and received a total of $428,379 in flood insurance payments.

These properties — and more than 30,000 others that have flooded multiple times — illustrate the current problems of the National Flood Insurance Program and also provide some insights into how challenging it will be to cope with sea level rise, flooding due to extreme weather, as well as other impacts of climate change. It is anticipated that between 4 and 13 million people’s homes could be inundated due to sea level rise by 2100.

How many of these homes will be in the same situation, repeatedly damaged by floods, and the main assistance provided is to repeatedly rebuild? How the nation — and the National Flood Insurance Program — face this dilemma is a key question we need to answer if we are going to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

That’s why NRDC decided to take a close look at how we’re already addressing properties that have been repeatedly flooded.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the NFIP, we received records on the 30,000 most frequently flooded properties in the program, called Severe Repetitive Loss Properties. The data reveal important new information about the flood history of these properties and show that in many, if not most of these cases, it would be cheaper to buy these properties than pay to rebuild them over and over again. At the bottom of this page are some facts about the most frequently flooded properties in the National Flood Insurance Program.

A disproportionate burden on the program

These 30,000 Severe Repetitive Loss Properties represent a disproportionate burden on the NFIP. Despite only representing 0.60% of the 5 million homes in the program, these properties have received 10.6% ($5.5 billion dollars) of all flood insurance claims since 1978. That’s an average of $181,444 paid over the life of each property. Nearly half (13,499) of these properties have been paid more in flood insurance money than their house is worth.

This prompts the question: how did we get here? And the more relevant question: what can we do to fix this?

Zip codes that contain at least one Severe Repetitive Loss Property. (NRDC illustration generated from FEMA data)

We arrived at this point because the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is designed to help people rebuild in the same location where they were flooded, a perilous strategy in the face of increasingly severe storms and sea level rise due to climate change. The drive to rebuild is completely understandable, but recognizing that some homes will be flooded again in the near future necessitates a different response.

NRDC has proposed a novel voluntary home buyout strategy that could help address this situation in a fair and equitable way. If homeowners are ready to break the cycle of being flooded and rebuilding, as our research suggests many are, they would sign an agreement with the NFIP that when their property’s damages from flooding exceeds 50% or more of its value, the government will buy out their property at its pre-flood fair market value.

The homeowners would then relocate to a safer area with that money and the property would be maintained as open space, providing some buffer against future floods. In exchange for this commitment, homeowners would receive discounted flood insurance and an accelerated buyout process.

Steps to protect against future flooding not taken

A home buyout strategy is so badly needed because, despite being flooded multiple times, the vast majority of properties we looked at have not taken steps to protect against future floods, like putting their home on stilts or pilings or relocating to higher ground.

The data we received from FEMA show that 75% of the 30,000 properties we examined have not taken action to reduce their vulnerability to flooding or received assistance to do so. These homeowners are stuck in a difficult situation as their properties have been flooded an average of five times. Instead of repeatedly paying to repair and rebuild these properties in the same place, where it will likely be flooded again, we should be helping these people relocate somewhere safer.

Some of these homeowners’ situations are even more fragile considering that 2,708 of them sustained damage in excess of 50% of their property’s total value during the last flood they experienced. In flood insurance-speak, this 50% threshold is what’s known as “substantially damaged,” meaning the owner has an obligation to take some action to reduce future flooding, at significant cost to them. It makes sense that many of these property owners want to relocate to higher ground. NRDC’s buyout proposal would allow the homeowners to do that if they want to, and taxpayers would be alleviated of paying to rebuild the property time and time again.

Reform will be possible next year

In 2017 Congress will have a chance to reform the NFIP (the National Flood Insurance Act must be reauthorized every five years) and NRDC will be pushing them to consider this option. Among the 30,000 properties examined, NRDC estimates it would cost about $2 billion to buy out those properties that are still insured, unmitigated, and at-risk, a not-unreasonable amount considering these same properties have already collected about $2 billion in flood claims. The NFIP is currently $23 billion in debt, so buying properties that are proven to be flood-prone would reduce the constant insurance and disaster assistance payments (some in excess of their property value), and thus take a significant step toward a safer and more sustainable future for our nation.

The future costs facing the nation are staggering and cannot be entirely avoided. The real estate website Zillow recently estimated that 1.9 million properties worth $882 billion are at risk of being inundated by sea level rise by the year 2100. NRDC does not propose that all those properties be purchased, but we should seriously consider how we assist low-income residents and home owners that are included among those properties.

The costs of repairing and rebuilding those 1.9 million properties multiple times before they are inundated will also be staggeringly high. The longer we leave people and their homes in an increasingly vulnerable situation, the more at risk people’s lives are, the more we will pay to repeatedly rebuild, and the greater the pressure will be to erect costly and environmentally questionable flood defenses, a strategy that is not feasible for the entire U.S. coastline.

NRDC has proposed a platform of “climate smart” flood insurance reforms that includes our discounts for buyouts proposal. Our reforms are intended to provide assistance to low-income homeowners to relocate as climate change puts their homes at greater risk and also increase the accountability and transparency that is sorely lacking in the NFIP.

Number of Severe Repetitive Loss Properties (see definition here): 30,369

Percent of all NFIP properties insured: 0.60%.

Total flood insurance payments received by these properties (1978-2015): $5,510,262,002.

Percent of all payments made to all properties in the NFIP (1978-2015): 10.56%.

Mean losses (flood claims) per property: 5.39.

Number of properties with more than 10 losses: 2,109.

Average cumulative payment received by these properties: $181,444.

Number of properties that have received more in payments than their house is worth: 13,499.

Number and percentage of these properties that have been mitigated (elevated, relocated, or demolished): 8,053 (26.52%).

Number and percentage that have not been mitigated: 22,016 (73.48%).

Estimated cost of mitigating 9,887 currently insured single-family homes: $1,998,607,615.

Lucas Eastman is a candidate for a Master’s of Environmental Management degree at Duke University who this summer is interning at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. This post originally appeared at the NRDC website.


  1. JC72 | | #1

    It's a good start but privitizing the system all together
    would be better. It's essentially welfare for the rich and promotes a cycle of waste. I read that FEMA has offered to provide assistance to homeowners flooded in Louisiana on the condition that the structure is raised. Finally some common sense.

  2. iLikeDirt | | #2

    A good lesson
    This is a good lesson about the ultimate cost--both human and financial--of cleaning up a mess created by well-meaning subsidies. Sometimes compassionate programs and be the cruelest of all in the long run. These are sites that simply shouldn't be built on.

  3. vpc2 | | #3

    Global Warming is Now, almost to late to deal with it
    We had the '10,000 year Tax Day 2016 Monster Rain Event' Pattison, Texas, and Louisiana now has had a 500 year storm and 1,000 year storm in the last three months including the August 12, 2016 1,000 year Super Storm which will cost multi billions of dollars in losses. This Super Storm had some of the highest atmospheric water vapor levels ever recorded over Louisiana, including measurements in past hurricanes, and this was not a tropical depression or hurricane!

    Climate experts now say that not only was the 2016 Super Storm in Louisiana was a once in a 1,000 year event, but 500 year event flooding has now been recorded at least eight other times this year in Texas. Oklahoma, South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland.

    Some in congress wanted FEMA flood insurance to pay for itself till to many very wealthy folk started raising cane, then congress wanted it 'not so much' and pulled it back.

    Many more big floods to come and we have ignored the threat way to long. Hold on to your wallets it is going to be a very long bumpy ride.

    Tea party hates government till their own town is obliterated in the 2016 Super Storm mega flood in Louisiana, then they want the government to pay for it and fix it yesterday.

    The 100 year floodplain by all accounts has become an anachronism.

  4. jkstew | | #4

    I agree with Chris that the
    I agree with Chris that the problem is the government programs. If the homeowners that live in the areas that get hit repeatedly with floods had to rely on private flood insurance, it would be so expensive to build there that nobody could afford it which is the sensible outcome.

  5. Jon_R | | #5

    ... rebuild in the same

    ... rebuild in the same location where they were flooded, a perilous strategy...

    While turning the land into a park is certainly an option, we do know how to build much higher. Flooding is still a hassle, but higher reduces property damage to any chosen statistical level.

  6. srenia | | #6

    I have a family member that had an extra home called "The Flood House". Every time it flooded it was underwater and every time the flood insurance paid out. What eventually happened is the flood insurance offered a buyout and he took it. I also have a secondary property around that area but most of it doesn't flood. The problem I have with that property is that the flood maps show it floods even though it doesn't. The land is higher than the surrounding land that isn't in the flood plain. On top of all this is a property owner up the creek did some work on the creek sides so the flooding would be lessened. The DNR got involved and made him change it back so more people would get flooded. FYI - City did similiar within the limits and there was no problems. The problem was it was a private owner and not the government doing it.

    I agree that reform is needed, but also that the government is hurting more than it is helping people in flood prone areas. Buyouts are a good thing. Specific grants for raising houses would probably be more cost effective before hand on current housing in flood plains. The flood plain lines need to be accurate and reasonable. Not just a land grab by the DNR.

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