by Tom Osborne
A new proposal by the Federal Emergency Management Agency would enable people whose homes were destroyed by floods and then bought out by the government to retain the flood-prone lands to rebuild or sell. If adopted, it would contradict FEMA’s long-standing policy of buying out and removing homes repeatedly damaged by floods, and then converting that land into open space.
The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from the New Jersey Flood Plain Managers and the National Resource Defense Council who believe it will perpetuate building on land at greatest risk to flooding and at highest cost to taxpayers.
According to the NRDC, “By purchasing a damaged house, paying for its demolition, and then allowing the owner to rebuild, FEMA is encouraging a maladaptive practice that does little to reduce long-term flood risk and flood damages.” (Read the NRDC blog post.)
FEMA’s current policy to repurpose land into open space is short-sighted and makes little practical sense. Why would a person who paid millions for a home by the shore allow the government to take the land instead of pre-emptively working with an engineer to create a hurricane-proof structure raised above the flood plain? This has been the norm here in Florida for some time.
New York and New Jersey could learn a lot from the work that Florida has done to change code requirements and help homeowners and businesses deal with the constant issues of hurricanes and flooding. The approach in Florida is all about storm hardening, not giving up.
I suspect the new FEMA proposal stems from lawsuits and politicians worried about the impact of undeveloped land on the tax base. Either way, if FEMA is going to burden taxpayers with the cost of rebuilding, the international building code must be enforced and special engineering standards must be met for all structures built in a flood zone. It makes sense.
FEMA’s proposal is not without problems. It would grant rebuilding money to homeowners who were approved for flood insurance without following dry flood proofing protocols. The maximum insurance payout was $250,000. Under the new policy, the homeowner would be able to collect the full value of the home, potentially millions of dollars.
Taxpayers should not be responsible for a gambler’s debit, penalized by short-sighted homeowners who decide to roll the dice rather than pay higher insurance premiums to protect their homes.
It is troubling that homeowners are not required to follow the same dry flood proofing guidelines as commercial building and business owners. FEMA must take steps to ensure that rebuilding funds are distributed only if dry flood proofing protocols are met. Without that assurance, taxpayers will be caught in a vicious cycle of paying every time these properties are wiped out by floods.
Tom Osborne is the owner and president of Flood Panel, LLC based in Jupiter, Florida. He oversees design, development and manufacturing of flood mitigation products for commercial buildings in flood zones nationwide. Osborne works closely with the Association of Flood Plain Managers and is a member of the Small Business Association of America. He is also a Certified Provider of Continuing Education for the American Institute of Architects for Dry Flood Proofing Commercial Buildings.