Category Archives: Floods

FEMA’s New Approach
to Flood Risk Will Make Insurance Program Fairer

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last week unveiled details of Risk Rating 2.0 – its plan to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to make it fairer and more sustainable.

The changes measuring flood danger differently – gauging properties’ specific risks and replacement costs, rather than simply whether they sit in a FEMA-designated “flood zone.”  FEMA officials said this would end a system in which low-value homes effectively subsidize insurance for high-value homes.

Despite concerns that Risk Rating 2.0 would lead to huge premium increases, NFIP Senior Executive David Maurstad said 23 percent of policyholders will see “immediate decreases,” 66 percent will see an “average of zero to $10 a month” in additional premiums, and 11% will pay higher bills, some more than $20 a month.

NFIP owes the U.S. Treasury $20.5 billion after a series of hurricanes that resulted in claims costs greater than the premiums FEMA received.

“Our current system is just fundamentally not working for us anymore,” Maurstad said, adding that the new approach would result in a “more equitable, accurate and individualized NFIP.”

Lawmakers in coastal states like Florida worried about the sudden impact of higher rates – more accurately reflecting the greater flood risk in those areas – on their constituents.  FEMA has ameliorated those concerns by making new rates apply only to new policies when the program takes effect in October 2021. Homeowners and businesses with existing flood policies won’t see a rate change until April 2022.

FEMA said high-value homes in high-risk areas would experience seeing the largest increases. FEMA expects their rate increases would take effect over a 10-15 year “glide path” as they continue to be protected by an 18 percent annual cap on premium increases that is written into law.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) quickly weighed in on the plan.

“The system we’ve used to calculate flood risk, and in turn insurance policy premiums, no longer holds water,” said Shana Udvardy, a UCS climate resilience analyst. “Outdated maps have left homeowners ill-prepared for possible disasters. Risk Rating 2.0 could go a long way in helping homeowners better understand their risk, ensuring they can make informed decisions to protect themselves and their property.”

“It is great to see that FEMA is moving forward with Risk Rating 2.0, which is so badly needed,” said Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation, a climate and technology non-profit that has done its own extensive flood-mapping. A recent First Street analysis found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods.

It identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s flood zone designation. “This equates to a total of 14.6 million properties across the country at substantial risk, of which 5.9 million property owners are currently unaware of or underestimating the risk they face.”

Floods, Freezing, Other Extreme Weather Highlight Need for Planning and Insurance

Recent flooding in Kentucky “is going to be one that goes into the record books,” the state’s Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett said in a news conference this week. At least 49 counties had issued disaster declarations following days of rain that dumped four to seven inches across a wide stretch of the state and pushed rivers to levels not seen for decades.

Dossett and Gov. Andy Beshear said the state had been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to seek federal aid and that assessments would be made next week for both the flooding and an ice storm last week. Damage assessments for the ice storm had been put on hold by the floods.

Extreme weather events, like these floods and last month’s winter storm that left dozens of Texans dead, millions without power, and nearly 15 million with water issues, underscore the importance of resilience planning and of homeowners and businesses having appropriate insurance coverage.

Flood protection gap

About 90 percent of all U.S. natural disasters involve flooding.  Whether related to coastal and inland inundations due to hurricanes, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, mudflows, or other events, floods cause billions of dollars in losses each year. According to FEMA, one inch of flood water can cause as much as $25,000 in damage to a home.

But direct economic losses are only part of the picture. Human costs are enormous, and it can take families, businesses, and communities years to recover.

Flood damage is excluded from coverage under standard homeowners and renters insurance policies. However, coverage is available from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and from a growing number of private insurers.

Many people believe they don’t need flood insurance if the bank providing their mortgage doesn’t require it; others assume their homeowners insurance covers flood damage; others think they cannot afford it.

As a result, a substantial protection gap exists.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. It identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s flood zone designation.

“This equates to a total of 14.6 million properties across the country at substantial risk, of which 5.9 million property owners are currently unaware of or underestimating the risk they face,” the report said.

Current system unsustainable

The NFIP owes more than $20.5 billion to the U.S. Treasury, leaving $9.9 billion in borrowing authority from a $30.43 billion limit in law. This debt is serviced by the NFIP and interest is paid through premium revenues. With flood losses on the rise, the current system is not sustainable without changes.

In December, FEMA proposed “substantively” revising the “estimated cost of assistance” factor the agency uses to review governors’ requests for a federal disaster declaration to “more accurately assess the disaster response capabilities” of the states, District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Its Risk Rating 2.0 initiative, set for implementation in October, aims to make flood insurance rates more accurately reflect insured properties’ individual flood risk.

 In other words, the federal government will likely ask states, municipalities, and some policyholders to shoulder more of the cost of recovering from natural catastrophes.

Complex challenges require multi-pronged approaches to address them, and FEMA and other federal and state agencies are working with the private sector to close the flood protection gap. In the near term, the most cost-effective way for families and businesses to mitigate flood risk is insurance.

If it can rain where you are, it can flood where you are. As Daniel Kaniewski, managing director for public sector innovation at Marsh & McLennan and former deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA, put it during a Triple-I webinar last year: “Any home can flood. Even if you’re well outside a floodplain, get flood insurance. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter or a businessowner — get flood insurance.”

Study Quantifies Future Climate Change Impact
on Flood Losses

A new study from the nonprofit First Street Foundation projects the impact climate change may have on U.S. flood losses.

The report – The Cost of Climate: America’s Growing Flood Risk –finds that, when adjusting for the long-term impact of a changing climate, nearly 4.3 million homes have “substantial” flood risk that would result in financial loss.

“If all of these homes were to insure against flood risk through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP),” the report continues, “the rates would need to increase 4.5 times to cover the estimated risk in 2021, and 7.2 times to cover the growing risk by 2051.”

Last year, the foundation released a report indicating that nearly 6 million U.S. properties could be at greater risk of flooding than currently indicated by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps.

The new report is particularly resonant as FEMA prepares to implement Risk Rating 2.0, an initiative to make flood insurance pricing more representative of each policyholder’s exposure and help customers better understand their risks and the importance of having flood coverage. It plans to accomplish this by using industry best practices and technology to deliver rates that “are fair, make sense, are easier to understand, and better reflect a property’s unique flood risk.

Implementation of Risk Rating 2.0 is scheduled to begin in October 2021.

Since homeowners who have federally backed mortgages and reside in FEMA-designated Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA) are required to buy flood insurance, the First Street data serve as an example of an early indicator of who could be most affected by risk-based rate changes in the near term and as the impacts of climate change evolve.

Potential cost consequences of expanded coverage under NFIP – or, worse, of not addressing the existing flood-protection gap – underscore the importance of a multi-pronged approach to mitigation and resilience that includes improved attention to how, where, and whether to build or rebuild and expanded availability and affordability of insurance.  

Study Supports Case
for Flood Mitigation
as World Warms

Intensifying rainfall fueled by climate change over the past 30 years has caused nearly $75 billion in flood damage in the United States, according to a study by Stanford University researchers.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shed light on the growing costs of flooding and the heightened risk faced by homeowners, builders, banks and insurers as the planet warms. Losses resulting from worsening extreme rains comprised nearly one-third of the total financial cost from flooding in the U.S. between 1988 and 2017, according to the report, which analyzed climate and socioeconomic data to quantify the relationship between changing historical rainfall trends and historical flood costs.

About 90 percent of natural disasters in the United States involve flooding, and much has been written about the flood protection gap.

“On average nationwide, only 30 percent of homes in the highest risk areas have flood coverage,” according to the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a Triple-I Resilience Accelerator partner. “Less than 25 percent of the buildings flooded by Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Irma had insurance. Indeed, repeatedly after floods there is evidence of the United States’ large and persistent flood insurance gap.”

To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. The foundation identifies “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood designation.

Flood coverage isn’t included in most homeowners insurance policies, so many may not know they don’t have it if their bank didn’t require them to buy it before providing a mortgage. Until recently, flood insurance was considered an untouchable risk for private insurers to write, so FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was the only game in town.

In recent years, however, Congress adopted new laws to support the emergence of a robust domestic private flood insurance market.  Last year, regulators provided rules that allowed private carriers to offer flood policies outside of NFIP and to qualify for the mortgage flood insurance requirement. Carriers and reinsurers are expanding their use of sophisticated models to underwrite flood risk, driving the growth of private sector flood insurance.

Triple-I has more information about flood insurance in our Spotlight on: Flood insurance article.

Expanded Triple-I
Flood Risk Maps Provide Richer Perspective

The Triple-I Resilience Accelerator’s flood risk visualization tool is being enhanced with:

  • National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) data on “take-up rates” by U.S. county from 2010 to 2021,
  • Differences between take-up rates inside and outside of flood zones, and in different proximities to flood zones.

These additions will expand the Accelerator’s visualization from covering only the current year to providing an historical perspective on how take-up rates have changed over time. 

Take-up rates and resilience

Insurance take-up rates represent the percentage of people eligible for a particular coverage who take advantage of it. In the case of flood insurance, they are calculated as the number of insurance policies in force in a certain geography over the total number of eligible properties for which insurance can be bought.

Understanding flood insurance take-up rates is essential to assessing and improving communities’ ability to rebound from damaging events. About 90 percent of natural disasters in the United States involve flooding, the NFIP says, and much has been written about the flood protection gap.

“On average nationwide, only 30 percent of homes in the highest risk areas have flood coverage,” according to the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a Triple-I Resilience Accelerator partner. “Less than 25 percent of the buildings flooded by Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Irma had insurance. Indeed, repeatedly after floods there is evidence of the United States’ large and persistent flood insurance gap.”

But understanding that gap to a degree that will support meaningful action requires comprehensive, granular data only NFIP can provide. It also requires the data to be available in easy-to-use formats. This is where the Triple-I/NFIP collaboration comes into play.

Key considerations to keep in mind when looking at take-up rates are year-over-year changes; whether the rates are by city, county, or state; and whether they are for all homes or homes in flood zones alone. During the first quarter of 2021, Triple-I’s Resilience Accelerator’s flood map will be updated with four options for users to visualize:

  • Annual take-up rates from 2010 to 2018,
  • 2019 take-up rates based on 2018 renewals only,
  • County-wide and flood-zones-only take-up rates estimates for 2020, and
  • County-wide share of dwellings in close proximity to flood zones.

Historical perspective

In 2019, NFIP started publishing historical data on NFIP insurance coverage, policies, and claims. NFIP’s decision to publish this data was a transformative point for industry practitioners, academics and those involved with flood insurance analysis. The Triple-I’s visualizations use NFIP’s full- and part-year data from 2010 to 2019 and our own estimates, based on this data, for 2020.

Dr. Michel Léonard, CBE, Triple-I vice president and senior economist says: “We’ve worked closely with NFIP to ensure that our visualizations reflect the most current, accurate information available on flood insurance take-up rates. In addition, we wanted to add to the discussion surrounding NFIP take-up rates by providing less common yet insightful ways to understand and visualize take-up rates, such as take-up rates for properties in flood zones only or the share of a country’s property in different proximities to flood zones.”

Flood coverage, as opposed to water damage from mechanical breakdown inside a house, isn’t included in most homeowners insurance policies, so many homeowners may not realize they don’t have it if their bank didn’t require them to buy it before providing a mortgage. Until recently, flood insurance was considered an “untouchable” risk for private insurers to write, so the NFIP was the only game in town.

In recent years, however, Congress adopted new laws to support the emergence of a robust domestic private flood insurance market.  Last year, regulators provided rules that allowed private carriers to offer flood policies outside of NFIP and to qualify for the mortgage flood insurance requirement. Carriers and reinsurers are expanding their use of sophisticated models to underwrite flood risk, driving the growth of private sector flood insurance.

 “We want to acknowledge and stress how significant the NFIP Policy and Claims data is to increasing our understanding of flood risk,” Léonard said. “Good data takes a lot of work, and NFIP’s commitment to making this data available is a perfect example of public-private partnerships delivering concrete value.”  

Mangrove Insurance:
Parametric + Indemnity May Aid Coastal Resilience

Earlier this year, I wrote about the role mangrove forests and coral reefs play in mitigating tropical storm damage and how insurance might help protect these critical resources. A recent Nature Conservancy study looks specifically at opportunities in mangrove protection and restoration and identifies where insurance could be used to support their resilience benefits.

In many places, mangroves are the first line of defense, their aerial roots helping to reduce erosion and dissipate storm surge. In Florida, one study found, mangroves alone prevented $1.5 billion in direct flood damages and protected over half a million people during Hurricane Irma in 2017, reducing damages by nearly 25% in counties with mangroves. Another study found mangroves actively prevent more than $65 billion in property damage and protect over 15 million people every year worldwide.  

Unfortunately, they frequently fall victim to development that creates the greatest potential for storm-related losses.

The Nature Conservancy study describes the implementation of a coral reef insurance product in Quintana Roo, Mexico, and explores how the model could be adapted for mangrove preservation. In Quintana Roo, a trust fund accepts money from public, private and philanthropic sources, as well as a federal fee collected from beachfront property owners who wish to use the beach for commercial purposes. It uses those funds to buy the insurance – a parametric product that is triggered if wind speeds in a designated area exceed 100 knots.

Parametric policies cover risks without the complications of sending adjusters to assess damage after a catastrophe. Instead of paying for damage that has occurred, it pays out if certain agreed-upon conditions are met – for example, a specific wind speed or earthquake magnitude in a particular area. If coverage is triggered, a payment is made, regardless of damage. Speed of payment and reduced administration costs can ease the burden on both insurers and policyholders.

“Unlike coral reefs, however, mangroves do not usually require rapid post-storm interventions in order to survive,” the study says. This means an indemnity insurance policy might be created that delivers payments based on post-catastrophe assessments of mangrove damage. “There are a variety of insurance products available that can be tailored to meet the specific needs of mangroves, with initial payouts made quickly through parametric covers and assessed payouts made through indemnity cover at a later stage.”

Before a mangrove insurance policy can be developed and deployed, a full feasibility study would need to be conducted.  The Nature Conservancy report recommends that this include “higher-resolution flood-risk models, estimation of the wind-reduction benefits of mangroves, and the construction of fragility curves to show the relationship between damage to a mangrove forest and some component of a storm event, such as storm surge or wind speed.”

Hurricane Delta Surges Closer to Gulf Coast

Hurricane Delta is surging closer to the U.S. Gulf Coast and is expected to land on the evening of October 9 somewhere on Louisiana’s southwest coast. Dr. Phil Klotzbach, CSU research scientist and Triple-I non-resident scholar gives an update on Delta in the video clip above.

The hurricane has grown in size since yesterday and a large area of the country will see impacts from the storm. Hurricane warnings are in place from High Island, TX to Morgan City, LA, and storm surge warnings extend from High Island, TX to the mouth of the Pearl River.

In addition to strong winds Delta is expected to bring storm surge as high as 7 to 11 feet along the coast of central LA, rainfall totals are forecast to be from 5 to 10 inches from southwest to central LA, with isolated totals of up to 15 inches.

Delta is on track to hit the same area of Louisiana where Hurricane Laura landed only six weeks ago. New Orleans, which will likely miss the storm, was still preparing for the possibility of tornadoes. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency.  Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also declared a state of emergency, with forecasters saying southern Mississippi could see heavy rain and flash flooding.

Tropical Storm Beta Moves Toward Texas Coast

The outer bands of Tropical Storm Beta are lashing the Texas coast but official landfall is forecast to be late this evening. Beta is also bringing tropical storm conditions to parts of the southwestern Louisiana coast where 2 to 4 feet of storm surge is possible.

The storm is going to bring heavy rainfall to areas that were hit by Hurricane Laura.

High tide on Tuesday could bring “life-threatening storm surge” in areas of Texas and Louisiana, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). “Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions,” NHC said. “Promptly follow evacuation and other instructions from local officials.”

The storm could also create tornadoes near the middle-to-upper Texas coast or the southwestern Louisiana coast, NHC said.

Please click on the links below for Triple-I’s hurricane preparedness guides:

If It Can Rain, It Can Flood: Buy Flood Insurance

Rivers swollen by Hurricane Sally’s rains have devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama, and the storm’s remnants are forecast to spread the flooding to Georgia and the Carolinas.

Many of the properties damaged will doubtless be found to be uninsured, compounding homeowners’ misery.

A well-known coverage gap

The flood insurance protection gap has been well documented. A recent Triple-I paper –  Hurricane Season: More Than Just Wind and Water – states that “about 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding” and cites experts strenuously urging everyone to buy flood insurance.

“Any home can flood,” says Dan Kaniewski — managing director for public sector innovation at Marsh & McLennan and former deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Even if you’re well outside a floodplain…. Get flood insurance. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter or a business — get flood insurance.”

Dr. Rick Knabb — on-air hurricane expert for the Weather Channel, speaking at Triple-I’s 2019 Joint Industry Forum — is similarly emphatic.

“If it can rain where you live,” he said, “it can flood where you live.”

Despite such warnings, even in designated flood zones, the protection gap remains large. A McKinsey & Co. analysis of flood insurance purchase rates in areas most affected by three Category 4 hurricanes that made landfall in the United States — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — found that as many as 80 percent of homeowners in Texas, 60 percent in Florida, and 99 percent in Puerto Rico lacked flood insurance.

To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. The report identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s designation.

“This equates to a total of 14.6 million properties across the country at substantial risk, of which 5.9 million property owners are currently unaware of or underestimating the risk they face,” the foundation says.

A more recent Triple-I analysis, conducted in advance of Hurricane Sally, found that flood insurance purchase rates in the counties most likely to be affected by the storm were “remarkably low.”

“In Taylor County, Ga., for example, just 0.09 percent of properties are insured against flooding,” Triple-I wrote.

NOT covered by homeowners insurance

Flood damage is excluded under standard homeowners and renters insurance policies. However, flood coverage is available as a separate policy from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, and from a growing number of private insurers, thanks to sophisticated flood models that have made insurers more comfortable writing this once “untouchable” risk.

Invest in resilience

If it seems as if you’ve heard me beat this drum before, you’re right.  I take flood and flood insurance very personally.

After Hurricane Irene flooded my inland New Jersey basement in August 2011, destroying many irreplaceable items, it was my flood insurance that enabled me to have a French drain and two powerful pumps installed that have since kept my historically damp basement bone dry – even during Superstorm Sandy the following year.