Seeking an End to a Flood of Claims
After years of repeatedly rebuilding houses, some communities are now opting to move homeowners to higher ground
This article first appeared in the June/July 1999 issue of National Wildlife.
Back when he lived with one ear permanently tuned to the weather forecast, Carl Moose used to joke that he never needed to redecorate his house. Every two years, Mother Nature did it for him.
Five times in 10 years, the creek near Moose´s Tulsa, Oklahoma, ranch house breached its banks, surged across his yard and spilled into his living room. Five times, Moose stacked his furniture on sawhorses and left home in the bass boat he kept for such occasions.
So frequent were the floods that Moose knew the drill by heart, from where to send the kids to how to fill out the stacks of federal flood-insurance forms. Over time, the payments for flood repairs piled up, too, eventually topping $150,000 for a house valued at half that amount. "It was throwing good money after bad," says Moose. "You knew you´d only get flooded again with the next bad rain."
The cycle was finally snapped a few years ago after a sixth devastating flood forced Tulsa to take drastic action. Instead of rebuilding Moose´s neighborhood the city bulldozed it, buying up the land and converting it into a greenway. Today, Moose is living high and dry in a new home, wild deer are frolicking where the old house stood, and Tulsa officials are wondering why it took so long to make the switch.
Tulsa, once known as the most flooded city in America, was one of the first to recognize a truth that is rapidly dawning on other flood-prone communities across the country: Sometimes the best insurance against flood damage is simply getting out of Nature´s way. Drawing from the bitter lessons of decades of often futile flood-fighting efforts, these cities are stifling the impulse to repair flood-damaged houses and are focusing instead on depopulating riverbanks, buying out properties in floodplains where possible and moving people and businesses to higher ground.
"The tendency was to look at what was ruined and replace it--but that´s not always the best thing to do," says Ann Patton, Tulsa´s community affairs manager. "Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and say, ´We´re not building it back.´"
The wisdom of this approach was underscored by a major study conducted last year by the National Wildlife Federation, which concluded that aggressively promoting buyouts not only saves money in the long run but creates ecological and recreational benefits, too. Restoring floodplains to their natural function helps limit the damage from future floods, while protecting water quality and creating prime space for recreation and wildlife, the study says.
But old habits are dying slowly in other communities. The report, titled Higher Ground, tracks a torrent of federal insurance dollars being poured into repeatedly repairing homes and infrastructure in neighborhoods that inevitably flood again. In an analysis of 18 years of claims paid by the federal National Flood Insurance Program, the report´s lead author David Conrad, an NWF water-resource specialist, identified 32,000 insured properties in 300 cities that had been flooded and repaired at least twice, sometimes apparently in violation of the local, state or federal government´s guidelines. The buildings represented only 1 percent of the nation´s insured properties, yet they received 20 percent of the program´s $6.4 billion in loss payments.
Like Carl Moose´s Tulsa home, nearly 5,600 properties were worth less than the money spent to fix them, Conrad says. The all-time spending champion was a house in Houston that flooded 16 times and sucked up $807,000 in repairs--seven times more than its market value.
Equally startling, Conrad says, is the of the federal government´s investment in preparing for floods and cleaning up the aftermath: $140 billion over the past 25 years, more than the annual gross domestic product of Austria. Ironically, he notes, "the government´s generous flood-insurance terms and elaborate flood-control structures helped create the current problem by encouraging development in flood-prone areas."
The numbers are a testament to the error of treating rivers and floodplains as forces to be conquered, observes NWF President Mark Van Putten. "All too often we´ve seen rivers straight-jacketed into concrete chutes and floodplains transformed into suburbs," he says. "Unfortunately, Nature´s reminders that we are not her master too often produce more flood victims, more damaged property and more costly disaster relief."
The tide may finally be shifting, however. Following the lead of Tulsa and other cities, the federal government is now pledging to increase its own efforts to encourage buyouts of flooded properties and restrict access to insurance for people who live in vulnerable areas.
Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke with decades of flood-fighting tradition by announcing plans to promote buyouts and wetlands restoration. The Corps´ $325 million "Challenge 21" proposal advocates an environmental alternative to the standard approach of containing nature with concrete and steel.
In November, James L. Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announced a strategy to save $1 billion in flood payments over 10 years through accelerated buyouts of properties with multiple disaster claims. "It´s time to quit wasting money and rebuilding in high-risk areas," Witt says. "If someone is going to build and live in a high-risk area, they ought to pay the price."
Cities are changing course, too, drawn as much by the ancillary benefits of natural floodplain management as by the savings in insurance premiums. Under law, floodplain properties that are bought with FEMA money must be reserved for natural uses and may not be redeveloped. David Passey, a spokesman for FEMA´s southern regional office in Denton, Texas, says communities are now discovering new possibilities for creating wildlife habitats or needed recreational opportunities. "You can achieve a lot of things," says Passey. "You can tie the newly opened space into an existing park or maybe create a new one."
Tulsa, with nearly 20 years of experience in restoring flood plains, has tried all the variations. Since the 1970s the city has purchased and cleared more than 1,000 properties from floodplains, using a combination of local and FEMA funds. The biggest single group purchase--about 300 buildings--came in the wake of the 1984 flood that killed 4 people and damaged 6,800 homes. Among the homes eventually purchased was Carl Moose´s, who fled his house for the sixth and final time that year.
Most of the purchased properties are, like Moose´s, now open space. Others were incorporated into a river park system that attracts not only urban visitors but migrating birds. "Ducks and geese have adopted us here, which is very pleasant," says Patton. "More and more we are recognizing the benefits of wetlands and natural areas, which increase the diversity of wildlife."
One former Tulsan who relishes the change is Moose, who sometimes drives through his old neighborhood on his way to his new address, a house in the suburbs, with a backyard swimming pool, perched safely on a hill far from any water body of signficant . On a recent visit he stopped to snap some pictures and reflect on the progress that has been made in both worlds.
"The wind might blow us away at the new place, but we won´t get flooded again," he says. "And I can tell you, it´s much nicer to swim in a pool than in your living room."
Joby Warrick is a reporter for The Washington Post.
Subsidizing Losers: A State by State Ranking*
By analyzing 18 years of claims paid by the National Flood Insurance Program, the National Wildlife Federation identified more than 5,000 insured properties in 39 states and one U.S. territory that had repetitive flood-damage claims exceeding the values of those properties. This chart lists the states by their ranking in such claims. Eleven states are not included because they had no repetitive losses exceeding the values of federally insured properties. Since the NWF study was completed in 1998, U.S. authorities have updated the total number to more than 7,000 properties.
||Number of homes
||Number of losses
||Total insurance payments
||Total value of homes**
||Total payment above value|
* Based on NWF analysis of NFIP repetitive loss database, 1978-1995
** Based on highest value ever attributed to each home
Greening the Corps
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has traditionally relied on dams and levees to address flood-control issues, its Challenge 21 environmental program would improve the agency's ability to move people out of harm's way and return floodplains to their natural functions by restoring wetlands and natural floodwater storage areas. Unfortunately, Challenge 21 has not received any funding since it was first authorized in 1999.
NWF is urging Congress, which has begun the process of deciding the Corps' budget for next year, to provide funding for Challenge 21 and to cut funding for some of the Corps' most environmentally damaging projects, including the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, the Delaware River Deepening Project, the Dallas Floodway Extension Project, the Big Sunflower River Dredging Project and the Yazoo Pumps Project. All five of these projects pose serious threats to the environment while providing little benefit to communities and businesses.