How flood insurance tempts the rich

Posted: Sep 07, 2006 12:01 AM

The Lord's Prayer declares, "lead us not into temptation," but that's exactly what the National Flood Insurance Program had done for some Americans of above-average income -- and the Senate just may keep it that way.

To understand how federal flood insurance works, look at the experience of ABC's John Stossel, in his own words: He "built a beach house on the edge of the ocean on Long Island. It was an absurd place to build a house. One block down the road was a desert-like wasteland where a dozen houses had eroded away a few years earlier. Still, my eager-for-the-business architect said, 'Why not build? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.'"

Stossel reports that "the contractor was right. During a fairly ordinary storm, the ocean knocked down my government-approved pilings and ate my house. Financially I made out just fine. Federal flood insurance paid for the house -- and its contents." Others have said the same: The feds encourage building in storm-prone beach areas where private insurers rightly fear to tread.

Look, for example, at the case of North Carolina's Betty Minchew, whose oceanfront rental house blew away during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. She used cheap federal flood insurance to rebuild her house and then build two other beachfront rental houses in the same hazardous area, not caring that they were also idols for destruction. She said, "Hugo was good to me" -- and when hurricanes are good to people economically, something is awry.

Not everyone who owns oceanfront property is wealthy, but many are -- and for them, federal flood insurance is welfare for the rich. Once-bitten private insurers, twice shy, would not keep paying for buildings in risky locations, but the federal government has enabled the repeated rebuilding of structures in risky locations.

This summer it looked like change might finally come. The House of Representatives passed a bill intended to eliminate or reduce subsidies for vacation homes and non-residential properties, with the goal of bringing annual premiums for those properties more in line with market rates. But the Senate took no action, and it still might not unless public pressure grows or another hurricane spotlights the need for change.

This is really a test to see whether a GOP Congress that reformed welfare for the poor will also reform welfare for the rich. The parallels are evident:

Welfare for the poor brought about multi-generational dependency on government, and welfare for the rich also provides government stipends for irresponsible behavior.

Poor teenagers who escape the welfare trap do so by following a three-part strategy: Graduate from high school, avoid drugs and don't get pregnant. Affluent owners of oceanfront property could avoid relying on welfare for the rich by also following three rules: Don't build unless you can afford either to pay high insurance rates or to lose it all; build a simple beach structure rather than a palace; if you do build, take advantage of improved (but much more costly) construction advances that decrease risk.

Repetitive flood insurance losses have displayed the difficulty that officials within a democracy have in saying no. Private insurance companies require significant premium increases on properties at risk, or require property owners to take preventive measures as a condition of writing coverage. If no changes occur, companies cancel policies -- but governments rarely have the will to do that.

Pay off once, shame on the weather or maybe on the builder; pay off twice or even six times, shame on those who write enabling laws and regulations. The solution: Those who build or buy in hazardous areas should pay the market cost of insurance. We should not encourage reckless activities among the poor and thus lead them into temptation, and we should not lure the rich, either. Let's hope the Senate understands this.