How to fix FEMA’s flood buyout program


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Flood insurance is meant to cover the cost if your home is damaged by flooding. The vast majority of flood insurance policies are sold through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by the federal government. But the program is on shaky ground.

One of the NFIP’s biggest problems is rebuilding insured homes multiple times after repeated floods. One solution is buyouts administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which provides federal funds to buy flood-prone properties and demolish them rather than rebuilding them over and over again.

But, as a study published in the journal Climatic Change described, federal buyout programs are often “inaccessible and inequitable” — which will be even more of a problem if buyouts become more frequent.

But there are solutions, says Linda Shi, an assistant professor in the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning. She and her co-authors looked to smaller buyout programs for potential lessons. State, county, and local buyout programs have more flexibility in how they operate, since they augment their federal money with state and local funds. Shi and her co-authors looked at what the FEMA buyout program can take from these local efforts.

Where the FEMA buyout program falls short

One big issue with FEMA’s program is that many people who own a flood-prone property are not eligible for a FEMA buyout. To qualify, you must have insurance through the NFIP. But hundreds of thousands of people are dropping flood insurance policies because of rising premiums. [2] Locally funded programs have more flexibility to offer buyouts to people who don’t carry policies.

For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services in North Carolina funds its $4 million annual budget for buyouts mostly with a stormwater fee.

“In Charlotte they decided to create their own funding program because the people they were helping to get out of the flood plain didn’t meet FEMA’s criteria for buyouts,” Shi says.

FEMA’s buyout program tends to favor certain kinds of people, namely single-family homeowners who are U.S. citizens and have the resources to go through the long bureaucratic process of securing buyout funds. That tends to leave out renters, immigrants, people in multigenerational or multifamily housing, and those who are behind on their mortgages or are in otherwise financially precarious situations. The Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston, explicitly prioritizes vulnerable populations in its buyout program, which is the country’s largest.

Another problem with FEMA buyouts is the issue of where displaced people go after their homes are purchased. Especially in hot housing markets, accepting a buyout means being forced to leave your community. That’s why programs like the Austin Watershed Protection Department in Texas provide enhanced relocation benefits to help homeowners find new homes.

Lessons from local buyout programs

Rather than imposing a top-down approach, Shi says local communities should have more leeway in implementing their buyout programs.

“Greater flexibility for communities to figure out what they most need is going to be more helpful than a rigid set of criteria and standards,” she says.

What FEMA can do is help clear the way for local programs: In New Jersey, the state’s Blue Acres buyout program had to negotiate with multiple parties, from mortgage lenders to government-sponsored mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to offer buyouts to people with homes underwater mortgages (meaning their mortgage debt exceeds the pre-disaster value of their home).

Increasing federal funding for state and county programs, giving them the flexibility they need to address flooding issues in their communities, and ensuring they do so in equitable ways are urgent and massive problems: While 43,000 houses have been bought out in the past 30 years, as many as 25 million households will be affected by a predicted six feet of sea level rise.

But buyouts are only one aspect of adapting to a wetter climate, Shi says.

“You can make buyouts more equitable and plenty of places have, but that has a very limited impact on the overall equity of vulnerability in a flood plain,” Shi says.

It starts with deciding where to build housing — and especially where to build affordable housing. If you’re going to move millions of people out of flood zones, they need places to live.

“That’s a much broader conversation of land use planning and housing infrastructure development,” Shi says.

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

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The most expensive US natural disasters since 1980


When a natural disaster comes our way, we can feel powerless to its effects. And those effects don’t just hurt our hometowns, but our pockets as well. With a record-breaking hurricane season expected this year, concerns about potential damages are in full swing.

The question is, how much do these individual disasters cost? Thanks to data from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), we can easily see just how expensive they can get. Using data from the NCEI, we’ve identified 15 of the costliest natural disasters to hit America since 1980.




Cost: $21.8 billion
Deaths: 35
When it hit: August 2004
States affected: Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina
Details: Southwest Florida and the Carolinas were hit with a storm surge and powerful winds from this Category 4 hurricane.




Cost: $24.4 billion
Deaths: 119
When it hit: September 2005
States affected: Landed in Louisiana and Texas, also affected Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas
Details: The coasts of Louisiana and Texas saw the entry of this Category 3 hurricane, while the storm surge and wind caused flooding in several other states in the South.




Cost: $25.1 billion
Deaths: 35
When it hit: October 2005
States affected: Florida
Details: Winds and flooding from this Category 3 hurricane mostly affected southeastern Florida.




Cost: $27.9 billion
Deaths: 57
When it hit: September 2004
States affected: Landed in Alabama and also affected Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia
Details: The gulf coast of Alabama bore the brunt of this Category 3 hurricane, whose wind and flooding also affected a great many other states along the East Coast.


Wiki Commons


Cost: $32.4 billion
Deaths: 1,260
When it hit: Summer through Fall of 1980
States affected: Central and Eastern United States
Details: The agriculture industry also took a hit from the drought of 1980, as did residents of the U.S. This drought directly and indirectly led to 10,000 deaths from heat stress.


Cost: $33.3 billion
Deaths: 123
When it hit: Much of 2012
States affected: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming
Details: According to NCEI, “the 2012 drought is the most extensive drought to affect the U.S. since the 1930s.” This drought, which affected more than half of the U.S. for more than half of the year, led to “harvest failure” for crops like corn, soybeans, and more.


Cost: $35.7 billion
Deaths: 112
When it hit: September 2008
States affected: Landed in Texas but also affected Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee
Details: This Category 2 hurricane led to “the largest (in size) Atlantic hurricane on record.” Besides the damage to homes and businesses, damage to oil platforms, gasoline storage tanks, and more led to shortages of gasoline along the southeastern states.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


Cost: $36.9 billion
Deaths: 48
When it hit: Summer of 1993
States affected: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin
Details: Rain and thunderstorms in central U.S. in 1993 led to what the NCEI calls, “the most costly non-tropical, inland flood event to affect the United States on record.”


Cost: $43.4 billion
Deaths: 454
When it hit: Summer of 1988
States affected: According to Chicago’s WGN9, “At one point, 45 percent of the Lower 48 was in a state of extreme drought and 11 states declared all of their counties ‘disaster areas.’”
Details: The exact number of deaths from drought conditions in 1988 may have come in at 454, but it’s estimated that heat stress from the drought directly and indirectly took the lives of 5,000 people.


Cost: $49.1 billion

Deaths: 61
When it hit: August 1992
States affected: Florida, Louisiana
Details: Florida took the brunt of this Category 5 hurricane, as some 160,000 residents of Dade County alone lost their homes.




Cost: $51 billion

Deaths: 97

When it hit: September 2017
States affected: Florida, South Carolina and the islands of St. John, and St. Thomas
Details: According to NCEI, this Category 4 hurricane destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the Florida keys after “devastating” U.S. Virgin Islands St. John and St. Thomas.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection


Cost: $72.2 billion

Deaths: 159
When it hit: October 2012
States affected: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia
Details: This hurricane wasn’t just a hurricane, but it met with a Nor’Easter and was so severe that even the New York Stock Exchange had to close for two days — something that hasn’t happened since 1888.




Cost: $91.8 billion (and counting)

Deaths: 65
When it hit: September 2017
Areas affected: Mainly Puerto Rico, but also St. Croix
Details: Data on this Category 4 hurricane (including the deaths caused by it) is still being collected. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has sustained so much damage that the standard of living has still not returned to normal.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection


Cost: $127.5 billion
Deaths: 89
When it hit: August 2017
States affected: Texas
Details: Seven days of rain met with flooding in this Category 4 hurricane that caused 30,000 people to become displaced and more than 200,000 homes and businesses to be damaged.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection


Cost: $165 billion
Deaths: 1,833
When it hit: August 2005
States Affected: Mainly Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but also Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee
Details: Known for broken levees, political fallout, and many in the city of New Orleans becoming homeless, Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 3 hurricane, tops this list of most expensive natural disasters in America since 1980.

Afraid of what might happen to your personal finances if a disaster strikes your hometown? Read here to learn what happens to your credit after a natural disaster

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by


Larry W. Kachelhofer / Wiki Commons


Featured Image Credit: Weeraa/iStock.


Myles Ma

Myles Ma is an editor at