State Laws Fail To Disclose Flood Risk About 15 million properties in the U.S. are prone to flooding, but patchwork and ineffective disclosure laws mean most people get little to no information about flood risk before they move.
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Living In Harm's Way: Why Most Flood Risk Is Not Disclosed

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Living In Harm's Way: Why Most Flood Risk Is Not Disclosed

Living In Harm's Way: Why Most Flood Risk Is Not Disclosed

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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

It's an increasingly common story in a hotter America. The rain starts falling and doesn't stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT HARRIS: Wow. Wow. Today is May 27, 2018. And this is some flash flooding in Baltimore City.

MOSLEY: Scott Harris took this video from his front porch. Before the flood, Harris had no idea he lived in a flood-prone area. And he's not alone. In most states, people who are moving to a new house receive little to no information about flood risk. As NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, that lack of information is leading people to put their safety and savings in harm's way.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: On that afternoon in 2018, the water just kept rising.

HARRIS: And I'm just watching all of the water that's just, you know, coming down the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: The water's running so far and fast. It's going up the corner and down the alley.

HERSHER: Within an hour or so, Harris' neighbors' apartments flooded. It wasn't the first time. This had happened at least six times going back to the mid-'70s. Local reports and federal maps both show that there's significant flood risk on Harris' block. But that information isn't very accessible to the public, and no one told Harris anything about it when he and his wife bought their house in 2005.

HARRIS: We had no idea at all that there was even a concern about a floodplain.

HERSHER: Harris is one of millions of Americans who are living in flood-prone areas and who likely only understood their flood risk after they moved in. And that's because in most states, homebuyers are entitled to very little information about flood risk. Twenty-one states have no disclosure requirements at all. Miyuki Hino is an environmental planning professor at the University of North Carolina.

MIYUKI HINO: There are certainly some buyers that won't get any information.

HERSHER: And she says the information that is disclosed is almost always too little, too late. In many states, there's one checkbox in a big pile of papers that you sign. As a result, a growing body of research suggests most people who live and own houses in flood-prone areas didn't know about their risk when they decided to buy, which leads a lot of people to put their life savings on the line without knowing it.

KERRIE OBBINK: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You're welcome.

HERSHER: This is Kerrie Obbink. She lives near Virginia Beach with her husband and four kids. And when they first moved to the area in 2015, they bought a house in Virginia Beach proper. It took all their savings to do it.

OBBINK: We didn't know anything about the flood risk or flood potential until just days before we closed on the house.

HERSHER: Obbink's husband was active duty Navy at the time, and they'd already given up their Navy housing because they were about to close on this house.

OBBINK: And at that point, it was too late to get out of the contract. We wouldn't have a place to stay. Like, let's just go.

HERSHER: The year after they moved in, the house flooded. Kerrie and her husband spent the night in their bed with their 3-year-old, their 1-year-old and five pets. It was a nightmare.

OBBINK: Our weight on the mattress was sopping the water up, so you'd wake up in a puddle.

HERSHER: The family had nowhere to go while they repaired the house, so they lived in their garage for four months. Even with insurance, they had to borrow money to afford the repairs, which is common among flood survivors. It took years to get back on stable financial footing, and there are some things that have never gone back to normal.

OBBINK: I have my days. So it was last week. And by me, there was a road that was completely shut down, blocked out. I had to drive through some running water that was coming across the road, and I called my husband, having a panic attack. Like, he's like, you're safe now. It's OK. You're safe. That's what it does to me.

HERSHER: In the last few years, half a dozen states and Congress have considered requiring more flood information for people buying property. Some, like Texas, have successfully passed new laws. And one real estate website, realtor.com, has added flood information to all its listings nationwide. But in many places, including Congress, efforts have stalled. In Virginia, a flood disclosure bill died in January.

TERRIE SUIT: We opposed that bill.

HERSHER: Terrie Suit heads the Virginia Realtors Association, which represents about 35,000 real estate agents in the state. She says one reason they opposed the bill was because it would have required people selling homes to disclose whether the home was in a flood zone.

SUIT: It leads the buyer to rely on information from a non-professional, from someone who has no expertise in flood hazard zones, no expertise in flood insurance requirements. And it's very concerning to us.

HERSHER: Kerrie Obbink testified in favor of the bill. She spoke as a flood survivor and also in a professional capacity. After her house flooded, Kerrie became a real estate agent. And even though it's not required, she says she tells her clients about flooding. And she makes sure everyone she works with knows what flood risk actually means.

OBBINK: I say, OK, this house is going to require flood insurance by your lender. That doesn't mean that you're going to flood, but it means that you have a very high chance of flooding over the course of your 30-year mortgage. OK, well, we're only going to be here for three to five years, so that doesn't matter. I thought the same thing. Let me show you my pictures.

HERSHER: She wants to make sure people understand living in a flood zone can be perilous even if your house hasn't flooded yet. Scott Harris knows that all too well.

HARRIS: So...

HERSHER: His house in Baltimore didn't get any water in it in the 2018 flood, but now he knows he's in a flood zone. He has to pay for expensive flood insurance, about $1,200 a year, that they had no idea they should budget for when they bought the place.

HARRIS: I got to do what I got to do. I'm bent over a barrel. I can't do anything else about it.

HERSHER: Because he knows next time, the water might not stop in the yard.

HARRIS: It's not a matter of if but when. And it just seems like, with climate change period, we seem to be getting more and more rain, heavier rain. And it's been a lot more unpredictable.

HERSHER: He says his family will probably try to move in the next few years. And unless laws change, when they do move, it will be up to them whether to tell potential buyers about the neighborhood's history of flooding and how much flood insurance costs.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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