Summer 1999 Update
Major deficiencies remain in flood-control policies
In “Plugging the Gaps in Flood-Control Policy,” (Issues, Winter 1994-95), I critiqued the policies that helped exacerbate the damages from the big 1993 flood along the upper Mississippi River and proposed steps that could be taken to avoid the next “Great Flood.” I argued that national flood damage is rising as a result of increased floodplain development and that federal flood control programs force taxpayers to foot the bill for damages sustained by those who live or work in floodplains. I also pointed out that these human uses of floodplains bring about substantial environmental damage.
Currently, whenever it floods, as it inevitably will, a farmer or homeowner located in a floodplain is reimbursed for damages—the farmer from federal crop insurance and agricultural disaster assistance programs, the homeowner by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) flood insurance and disaster assistance programs, and everyone by the Army Corps of Engineers’ repairs of flood protection structures that have failed before and will fail again. All this is aided and abetted by media heart wrenching, political hand wringing, and anecdotal courage in the face of danger, but few hard facts.
In the article, I argued that disaster aid must be reduced. Specifically, I called for incorporating disaster funding into the annual budget process, tightening and toughening the flood insurance and crop insurance programs, limiting new structural protections by the Corps, and buying floodplain properties. Other analysts and policymakers urged these and other steps.
Since 1994, a huge amount of analysis of flood problems has taken place, and reports and studies galore have been produced. These include the Corps’ multivolume Floodplain Management Assessment and the Clinton administration’s Unified National Program for Floodplain Management.
There have been program and policy changes, but they have had minimal impact. The National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994 tightened some loopholes, but despite an intensive advertising campaign, only 25 percent of the homes in flood hazard areas have insurance policies today. When the 1997 Red River floods hit Minnesota and North Dakota, for example, 95 percent of the floodplain dwellers already knew about flood insurance, but only 20 percent had bought policies.
FEMA has bought out 17,000 floodplain properties since 1993, yet Congress funds the program at miserly levels. In fiscal year 1998, not even a penny was allocated to FEMA for pre-disaster mitigation, but $2 billion was spent on disaster aid. The Corps does have a new Flood Hazard Mitigation and Riverine Ecosystem Restoration Program, funded over six years at $325 million. Only $25 million, however, was allocated in FY 1998.
Reduction of disaster assistance and crop insurance subsidies is anathema to farmers, and it’s especially difficult to accomplish now that agricultural exports, along with prices of farm products, have fallen for three years in a row. “Reform” of crop insurance today means that farmers pay less and get more. Although the Crop Insurance Reform bill of 1994 required a farmer to obtain catastrophic insurance, the government is paying the bill.
Lack of data is an important reason why U.S. flood control policy continues to flounder. We don’t know what the total cost of flood damage or the cost to the taxpayer is. The Corps never produced its promised Economic Damage Data Collection Report for the 1993 flood, but its raw data was used in the Floodplain Management Assessment: only $3.09 billion in damages from overbank flooding, as compared to the official $15.7 billion figure that was compiled, using back-of-the-envelope estimates and press reports, by the National Weather Bureau.
How much we spend is impossible to trace, because it’s lost in Congress’s Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bills, such as the one in 1998 that included a host of other unrelated items. Surely, if we knew what the damages were and what we’re paying to deal with them, we’d have a better idea of what to do. It would be a place to start.