Lost in the Flood

If you took $7 billion, ripped it up and flushed it down the drain, you'd pretty closely mimic the actions of the U.S. government when it comes to flood-control policies. At least that's what a report by the U.S. Department of Interior determined several years ago when it analyzed federal programs encouraging wetlands development.

Although those programs range from agricultural to home-development subsidies, the most controversial of the lot is flood insurance offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Under this program, home and business owners in a flood-prone area can purchase tax-subsidized flood insurance at a cost that dips well below the market rate.

Scott Faber, director of the floodplain-management program of American Rivers in Washington, D.C., points out that by offering below-market flood insurance, the federal government encourages people to build and live in floodplains. "At the turn of the century, there were virtually no permanent structures in the floodplains that weren't water-dependent," Faber says. "That's because no one could get flood insurance in those areas. Then, in 1936, the government began assuming more and more responsibility for flood relief, for building and repairing flood-control projects.

"So now, the federal government not only builds your levee, repairs your levee and provides disaster relief, it also provides flood insurance," Faber continues. "If I'm a mayor of a town in the floodplain, I get all the benefits of floodplain development in terms of tax revenues, but none of the costs. And what we've seen, especially since World War II, is a dramatic increase of population in the floodplains."

This year in Missouri, FEMA administered about 22,748 flood-insurance policies. The program grew by 10 percent in 1996-97 alone. Between 1978-98, FEMA paid out more than $2.3 billion in claims in Missouri.

But two weeks ago a major change in the agency's direction was proposed by its director, James Lee Witt, who announced that the limitation or elimination of many of FEMA's policies was in order. Among his recommendations were that people who insist on building or living in a floodplain not receive below-market-cost flood insurance funded by taxpayers.

In addition, says Kim Fuller, a spokesperson for FEMA, those who insist on living or building in a floodplain but don't take proactive flood-protection measures may not get any assistance at all.

"If you live in a high-risk area, and we've paid out claims more than the value of your home, we're going to say that if you don't elevate, flood-proof or allow us to buy you out, then we are not going to be able to make flood insurance available to you anymore," says Fuller. "There are communities in the St. Louis area that get flooded over and over again, but they know they can go right back to the federal government to get help."

A large chunk of the policy recommendations include encouraging communities to abandon wetlands development of any kind.

Cape Girardeau, Mo., signed on last year by taking part in FEMA's Project Impact program, designed to prevent catastrophic flood damage in part by restricting any development in the floodplain.

FEMA was also a big supporter of a November ballot measure in Kansas City that requires the city to assess a special fee on any new development projects within the city limits. Doug Welty, a FEMA spokesman, explains that the fees are prorated according to how much pavement the project lays down. So a developer who wants to pave over 20 acres for a parking lot is assessed on the basis of how much more the proposed development puts the area at risk. The fees will be used for storm-water-management projects and sewer improvement.

"It's a good plan," Welty says. "It answers the question 'How do we accommodate development and the forces of nature?' It failed miserably the first time they put it on the ballot last year. But then this last October, flooding in that area killed 11 people, and, come November, it passed. I think people learned that there is no minimizing the force of nature. There's no predicting it, no selling it short."

-- Melinda Roth

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