Pamela Rivera, Latino Engagement Associate / Program Assistant, Washington, D.C.
Water is one of Florida’s greatest assets and attractions but soon it could become one of our worst nightmares! Growing up in the sunshine state, you get used to floods, rain storms, and hurricanes and reaching for the umbrella as you walk out the door. However, the severity and frequency of storms are a growing concern. Extreme weather is becoming increasingly common and we Floridians are going to have to pay the price.
As Floridians we need to come to terms with the fact that we are surrounded by water. We live on a peninsula that 10,000 years ago was submerged in water. Beautiful beaches and diverse ecosystems are a large part of the reason people live and visit Florida, but we also contend with an extremely active hurricane season that results in heavy rainfall and flooding—even when storms don’t hit.
Almost the entire state is a flood zone, and current weather trends make this fact increasingly salient. In order to mitigate some of the growing climate challenges facing our state, we have to be more judicious in our development especially in coastal areas. An increasingly warmer world will not only lead to more rain related flooding, it also means global sea level rise as much as 6-16 inches by 2050 which for our state; puts more people and property in jeopardy.
Currently, Florida has the highest number of flood insurance policies, over two million and counting with the next closest state, Texas, holding just over 645,000. It’s not even close. If a major storm were to hit, Florida may find itself unable to cover the damage costs.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is essentially the only flood insurance provider in the country and through its subsidized insurance rates has spurred development in high risk areas that repeatedly flood.
Last year, the Florida legislature passed H.B. 503, meant to speed up the development permitting process to allow for even more coastal development by allowing communities to obtain building permits without approval from federal and state agencies. This goes directly against NFIP requirements, derails over two million flood insurance policies, and leaves over 400 communities vulnerable. FEMA accepted a compromise proposed by the Florida Division of Emergency Management in order to avoid the suspension in insurance, but it is this type of short-sighted policy that puts our communities at risk and leaves taxpayers liable for the costs.
Low income communities and communities of color are often among the hardest hit by coastal storms. These communities usually lack the infrastructure to effectively endure a storm surge and experience larger losses than the general population. These losses are then transferred over to taxpayers who have to bear the burden. The best way to reduce this risk is to discourage bad development; the following are some ways to do this:
- discontinue subsidized insurance rates
- provide accurate and easy to understand information to at- risk communities
- actively discourage building in flood zones
Coastal developments in particular carry a high level of risk. They make up a large portion of the repetitive loss properties, areas that have been repeatedly flooded, and are responsible for almost $9 billion or 25 percent of all NFIP payouts. As of right now the NFIP is $20 billion dollars in the red.
The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 takes some important steps to address weaknesses in NFIP by phasing-in increases in insurance rates to reflect risk and phasing out subsidies for some properties, although some senators are fighting to delay these hikes. These are good first steps and hopefully they are enforced.
As beautiful and dreamy as beachfront property may seem, the continued development of our coastlines is unsustainable. As a Florida native, I care about our state’s future. We have an obligation to protect future generations and I worry about the losses that so many will face if we continue to ignore the growing risk of climate change and the flooding that it is causing.
Image Credit: FEMA News Photo/ Barry Bahler