49 ELR 10320 ENVIRONMENTAL LAW REPORTER 4-2019
Changing the National Flood Insurance
Program for a Changing Climate
by Dena Adler, Michael Burger, Rob Moore, and Joel Scata
Dena Adler is a Fellow and Michael Burger is the Executive Director at the Sabin Center for
Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. Rob Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst and
Joel Scata is a Water & Climate Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Congress established the National Flood Insura nce
Program (NFIP) in 1968 to reduce ood dam-
ages nationwide and ease the federa l government’s
nancial burden for providing disaster recovery.1 To
achieve this goal, the progra m was designed to perform
three primary f unctions. First, the program provides feder-
ally backed insura nce to property owners and renters. Sec-
ond, the program established minimum requirements for
building, land use, a nd oodplain management practices
that local communities must adopt in order for their resi-
dents to be eligible to purchase NFIP insurance coverage.
ird, the program is responsible for mapping high ood-
risk areas. ese maps inform local land use decisions as
well as the pricing of ood insurance premiums.
eoretica lly, the NFIP should have deterred develop-
ment in ood-prone areas, ensured that any new devel-
opment in the oodplain was designed to minimize the
risk of ood damage, and reduced federa l expenditures
on disaster recovery costs. In practice, the rising debts of
the program and growing severity a nd frequency of ood
disasters imply the opposite is true. One signicant fac-
tor contributing to this shortcoming is that the NFIP is
predicated on the assumption that ood risks a re static
and change little over time. Climate c hange is proving that
assumption to be extremely dangerous and costly.
is Comment will assess the current state of the NFIP
and the threats to it from climate change (Part I). In addi-
tion, it explores several strategies to change the NFIP for a
1. National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, as amended, and the Flood Disaster
Protection Act of 1973, 42 U.S.C.A. §§4001 et seq. It was further modied
by the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994 and the Flood Insur-
ance Reform Act of 2004.
ese strategies include:
• Encourage long-term migration away from coastal
areas and oodplains t hrough a national “discounts
for buyouts” program that wou ld oer homeowners
discounts on their ood insurance premiums now,
in exchange for a commitment to accept a future
buyout once their home is substantially damaged by
ooding (Part II).
• Expedite bringing vulnerable properties into compli-
ance with oodplain development requirements that
decrease the potential for ood damage by commu-
nity adoption of a cumulative and/or lower threshold
“substantial damage” or “substantia l improvement”
standard (Part III).
• Increase the transparency and availability of infor-
mation on ood damages, number and cost of poli-
cies, information on repeatedly ooded properties,
costs of the program to the nation, and the level of
enforcement by participating communities through
a national “homeowner right-to-know” provi sion,
and at the state level improve disclosure policies
that inform homebuyers about ood-related risks
(Pa rt I V).
• Improve monitoring, tracking, and disclosure of
data related to community compliance and provide
resources to address barriers to enforcement that
impede implementation of the oodplain regulations
at the community level (Part V).
Collectively, these reforms can help restructure the NFIP
to prevent escalation of debts, reduce taxpayer burden, and
most importantly increase the safety of millions of vulner-
I. The NFIP and Climate Change
Today, the NFIP has 5.1 million ood insurance policies
providing $1.3 trillion of insurance coverage to policy-
Authors’ Note: We are greatly appreciative of research support from
our student interns Sophia Cornell, Samantha Doss, Korinna
Gareld, Adelaide Jones, and Joe Liberman.
Copyright © 2019 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®, http://www.eli.org, 1-800-433-5120.