An ounce of prevention

October 22, 2007

Awell-intentioned federal program designed to provide flood insurance for properties the private market won't touch has morphed into a debt-ridden monster that encourages development in flood-prone areas and sticks taxpayers for the cost of repeatedly rebuilding the same homes.

Now Congress, still more concerned about lower rates than lower risk, is moving to expand the program to add taxpayer-backed coverage for wind damage.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of a so-called reform measure approved by the House last month is a provision co-sponsored by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Eastern Shore Republican, that would require the federal government to update its maps of flood-prone areas to take the effects of global warming into account.

A genuine reform effort should build on that approach to make clear to local zoning officials that they can't continue to carelessly approve waterfront projects at a time of rising sea levels and more frequent storms, expecting the federal government to pick up the pieces after the inevitable disaster. The Chesapeake Bay, for example, has risen a foot and a half in the past century, swallowing land by the acre, yet this trend is not reflected in flood plain maps.

The 1968 federal flood insurance program was supposed to be a self-financing, last-resort tool to discourage new development in dangerous areas, while helping longtime homeowners make their properties safer. But because of interference by lawmakers, the program has had the opposite effect: subsidizing what in some cases is luxurious living at the expense of not only the taxpayers but also fragile wetlands and wildlife habitat.

The House bill was originally intended to put the program on sounder financial footing by requiring it to begin charging premiums according to actuarial risk, as private insurers do, as well as requiring property owners to increase their coverage amounts.

But an emotional appeal by Rep. Gene Taylor, who along with many of his Mississippi constituents lost his home to wind damage during Hurricane Katrina, prompted a move by House leaders to expand the federal flood program - already $20 billion in the red - to cover wind damage as well.

The Senate is wisely looking for a better answer. It should be one that helps people out of harm's way.

Encouraging ill-advised development only increases the danger for everyone.

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