Most of Louisiana’s flood victims lack insurance

Most of Louisiana’s flood victims lack insurance

SOUTH Louisiana is pretty well inured to catastrophe. But the still-unfolding disaster that is being dubbed the Great Flood of 2016 came as a particular shock, arriving as it did without a name (unlike a hurricane or a tropical storm) and without the powerful winds that usually herald a dramatic storm. 

Forecasters had warned of heavy rains and the possibility of flash floods in and around Baton Rouge, the state capital. But that is routine in August for a place that often gets more rain in a day than many California cities do in a year. The rains that started falling on August 11th, however, dumped a record 15 inches over a wide swath of terrain around the capital city, and more than 25 inches in some places. The rivers, which in the region’s pancake-flat landscape barely slope, couldn’t carry the water away—indeed many began to flow backwards—and the result has been disaster.

The American Red Cross reckons the storms are the worst to have hit the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Officials are still working out the full extent of the damage, but at least 40,000 homes—and possibly as many as 100,000—in over 20 of the state’s 64 counties, or parishes, as they’re called, have been damaged. At least 13 people have died. 

Media coverage of the flooding has been subdued. That is due in part to the storm’s slow and stealthy nature, and its relatively modest death toll, but it is nonetheless a failing. The floods didn’t make the front page of the New York Times until August 16th, the same day its ombudsman published a column chiding the paper for being late to the game. The Atlantic published a story on August 17th headlined “America is Ignoring Another Natural Disaster Near the Gulf.”

The Advocate, meanwhile, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, complained in an editorial that Barack Obama was still sunning himself in Martha’s Vineyard when he should have been touring the damage; though the paper conceded that Obama’s first responders were doing a much better job with this storm than their predecessors did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The White House said in a statement the president did not want his presence to hamper relief efforts; he is due to visit on August 23rd.

The real question facing Louisiana does not concern media coverage or visiting politicians, however, but rather, what the federal government is going to do for Louisiana this time.

After Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was endless wrangling over what sort of aid the residents of the city and its environs deserved. Members of Congress complained the city was below sea level, and that many people were foolish to have lacked flood insurance. In the end, however, a couple of truths prevailed. The levees that failed the city had been guaranteed by the federal government, but they weren’t up to the job. And no one wanted to see the city die on the vine, as it surely would have done without an infusion of help. After Sandy, too, the federal government came up with a large aid package: it could not expect a huge number of Americans to absorb staggering financial losses.

In Louisiana, too, large numbers of people have sustained major uninsured losses. Most of them will be of modest means. Most flood insurance in America is underwritten by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, through the National Flood Insurance Programme. Homeowners who live in high-risk flood zones are required to carry flood insurance if they have a federally backed mortgage. In Louisiana, around 42% of homes in high-risk areas have flood insurance, estimates FEMA; only 12% of homeowners in low and moderate-risk areas do. Many of the areas affected were not considered high-risk.

Flood insurance has traditionally been subsidised to encourage people to purchase it, but the subsidy has been lowered after the government absorbed huge losses in Sandy and Katrina. Data show that as the cost of insurance goes up, more homeowners are deciding to let their policies lapse. In Louisiana, the number of homeowners carrying flood insurance has fallen by 9% over the last five years, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

In Livingston parish—perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state, where an estimated three-quarters of homes flooded and water reached the eaves in some communities—less than a quarter of households have flood insurance, according to federal data. Other inundated areas had equally low rates of people with flood insurance.

America’s policymakers are going to have to figure out a way to reverse trends like that, whether it is by increasing subsidies or by some other means. For, as air and water temperatures continue to rise, meteorologists predict storms like last weekend’s deluge—and the floodwaters that follow them—will become increasingly common.