There’s a harsh but wise adage: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
As painful and expensive for property owners as it likely will be, Galveston County is going to have to learn the lessons of Hurricane Harvey or be doomed to relive it again and again. Severe flooding will strike again and people living on the upper Texas coast can’t change that. But what people whose properties were badly damaged in known flood zones — and newly discovered ones — can do is prepare and rebuild better, smarter.
Many Galveston County residents — at least 58 in League City — will soon receive unwelcome news from the Federal Emergency Management Agency advising them they’ll have to build to higher standards. The idea — and it’s a good one — is to prevent or reduce flood damage in future storms. Some of those homeowners will be angry, some will resist and some will walk away. But, cities shouldn’t cave.
League City, like other hard-hit cities, is compelled to enforce strict ordinances about where property owners can build and how they do it, lest the city become ineligible to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, officials said.
That’s no small thing. If a community doesn’t participate in the program, its residents can’t get insurance coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program and have to turn to private insurers, FEMA officials have said. That’s a mostly false alternative because very few private insurers offer flood coverage in places that tend to flood.
“No law requires they participate,” FEMA spokesman John Miles said. “If they do participate, they have to have ordinances that meet standards and they have to enforce them.”
Benefits of participating in the program go beyond just flood insurance coverage, although that’s crucial. They also include opportunities for grants and loans, disaster assistance and federally backed mortgages.
The program’s rules are meant to manage the risk of building in hazardous places, Miles said.
The methods include requiring damaged structures to be elevated above what the flood level is expected to be, which can be expensive.
But what’s really expensive — and what increases flood program costs for everyone and has helped it incur more than $24 billion in debt — is the vicious build-flood, build-flood cycle. Because when the program’s premiums fall short as they always do, federal taxpayers are on the hook.
Repetitive flooding has plagued the program since its creation in 1968. Just 1 percent of insured properties have accounted for more than 30 percent of the claims paid, according to reports.
The aversion to paying for preventive measures is a costly human tendency and behavior reinforced by the promise of a bailout. It’s much like enabling chronic gamblers by always paying their debts.
“A recent analysis of NFIP related data revealed that the owners of approximately 22,500 out of 30,000 repetitive loss properties had not taken any action to reduce their vulnerability to flooding or received any assistance to do so.
“Unbelievably, those NFIP policyholders, who have incurred repetitive losses, currently face no limit on the total value of payments they may receive or on the number of claims made,” according to online news source The Hill.
One of the built-in mechanisms in the NFIP is called the substantially damaged, or 50-percent, rule. Substantial damage means damage to structures that results in the cost of restoring the structure to its previous condition equaling or exceeding 50 percent of the market value of the structure before the damage occurred.
When the cost of the work reaches 50 percent, the structure must be brought into compliance with current ordinances and codes.
After Hurricane Ike in 2008, the 50-percent rule was in many cases met with resistance by property owners. Some ignored it or somehow, incredibly, found a way around the 50-percent rule as evidenced by many slab-on-grade houses rebuilt near the island’s bayous. City officials, when attempting to enforce the 50-percent rule, often are faced with upset residents and the threat of people just walking away rather than investing in mitigation.
Mitigating, as costly as it is, is still cheaper than the build-flood, build-flood cycle. It’s just a matter of who pays for it. And it’s the only cure for this particular strain of insanity.
• Laura Elder