As Hurricane Harvey continued to batter Texas on Tuesday — and make its way toward Louisiana — U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer called on federal lawmakers to renew the national flood insurance program, which is set expire Sept. 30, saying that, without it, flood-prone communities like Long Beach could be in jeopardy.
Schumer spoke at a news conference in the West End, in front of the unfinished home of Liz Treston — who, five years after Hurricane Sandy, is in the process of elevating her home. Schumer said that Congress’s failure to reauthorize funding for the program could leave Long Islanders vulnerable as this year’s hurricane season continues, with predictions that New York is at risk of being hit by a major storm.
“For those of us here in New York and on Long Island, flashbacks of Sandy are made vivid by the torrent of Harvey,” Schumer said. “That is why, as this dangerous storm continues to churn and as hurricane season itself continues to spin, we cannot and must not allow the National Flood Insurance Program to expire.”
The NFIP covers roughly 5 million policyholders nationwide, including tens of thousands on Long Island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides homeowners with flood insurance through the program, which was established by Congress in 1968 because most private insurers had stopped offering flood policies, according to Schumer.
Harvey’s devastation is said to have caused as much $30 billion in damage to homes — according to early estimates reported by the New York Times — only 40 percent of which may be covered by insurance.
The storm has put greater focus on the national insurance program, and Congress is now debating its future, with Republicans pushing to restructure and partially privatize an industry that is subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
Unless Congress acts to extend the program — which is $24 billion in debt after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and other disasters — no new flood insurance policies can be written after Sept. 30. Schumer said that a lapse would mean uncertainty for those looking to purchase new homes and for homeowners at risk of drastic flood damage who would not be able to renew their coverage, among other concerns.
Schumer criticized House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who has pushed for privatization and other changes, while lawmakers argue whether the program should be privatized or eliminated. Schumer said that while the program needs to be improved, privatization would result in lower payouts to homeowners and greater potential for fraud, citing cases after Sandy in which private engineering firms allegedly altered damage reports that led to the "unjust" denial or underpayment of homeowners' insurance claims.
Hensarling “would rather end the program, as he has tried to do in the past, or now wants to so greatly curtail it that prices for homeowners would go way up,” Schumer said. “The number of people who recovered would go way down, and people would be stuck. That is unbelievable. In the wake of what we experienced with Sandy, and Texas is experiencing with Harvey, we need to make flood insurance better and stronger, not undercut it, weaken it or even eliminate it. And we’re on the verge of that happening now.”
FEMA updated flood plain maps for Nassau County in 2009, and designated most of Long Beach a flood zone. The NFIP required that homes that were more than 50 percent damaged by Sandy be elevated to base flood elevation, which varies throughout the city from 8 to 17 feet above sea level. The rules, FEMA said, are intended to minimize flood losses. Many homeowners also elevated to avoid hefty flood insurance premiums.
“This flood insurance needs to be extended and certainly provide greater protection to homeowners from outrageous premiums,” City Manager Jack Schnirman said. “We desperately need to ease the escalation of flood insurance rates … and also protect storm survivors from fraud and abuse.”
Schumer said that 144,000 homeowners in New York filed flood insurance claims after Sandy. Treston — who was supposed to return home in May, but said she is still awaiting funding from the NY Rising program and her flood insurance — was among them.
Typically, flood insurance policies cover up to $300,000 in damage. Treston paid about $3,000 per year for flood insurance before she began elevating, but initially only received about $10,000 for the damage to her home. Like many residents, she hired an adjuster and an attorney to challenge the damage estimate.
“$10,000 wasn’t even going to cover the cost of the new oil burner,” she said.
Still, if the flood insurance program were to expire, she said, her premiums would significantly increase. “If the reauthorization doesn’t go through, it’s rumored that every year, your price will go up, and it will cap at about $18 grand,” she said. “Plus, the property taxes are going to rise significantly with the new house. It needs to be reauthorized tomorrow. You’re talking about people’s lives. We aren’t the 1 percent — we are your school teachers, we are your cops, we are your firemen, we are your neighbors.”
“We know the program is far from perfect,” Schumer said. “We’re working to improve it to get the money earlier to people, to make sure the increases are not great and to cover all the areas that have floods, and not force people to pay in areas that don’t have floods.”