Unknown Risk Of Flood And Wildfire For Homeowners, Renters : Consider This from NPR Every year, millions of American renters and homebuyers make decisions about where to live. They have a lot of information to help them make a decision — about everything from schools to public transit to lead paint.

But what many never learn, until it's too late, is that their homes are in areas that are increasingly prone to flooding or wildfires.

This episode contains elements from a special reporting project by NPR's Rebecca Hersher and Lauren Sommer. You can read an overview of their reporting here. They also have advice for questions to ask about your property when it comes to wildfire and flood risk in a changing climate.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Listen to Embedded on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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How Much Do You Really Know About Your Flood Or Wildfire Risk?

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How Much Do You Really Know About Your Flood Or Wildfire Risk?

How Much Do You Really Know About Your Flood Or Wildfire Risk?

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey. This is Kelly McEvers. And before we get started, I just want to say a quick goodbye. This is the last time I'm going to be hosting the show. As you probably know, we started this thing back in March as a daily podcast about the pandemic. Since then, we've obviously expanded the focus of the show. And in doing that, we've been handing it over to our colleagues who make the NPR radio show All Things Considered, thus the new name CONSIDER THIS.

As for me, I'm going to go back full-time to the other NPR podcast I host. It's called Embedded. We actually have a new episode about Mitch McConnell coming soon. It's this weirdly personal episode. You should check it out. There's a link to that show in this show's episode notes. But I just wanted to say thank you for sticking with us. Know that this show will keep on keeping on and that you are in very good hands. OK, here we go.

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

MCEVERS: Scott Harris took this video from his front porch a couple years back.

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

MCEVERS: Within hours, his neighborhood was flooded. And it wasn't the first time. This had happened at least six times starting in the mid-'70s. Thing is local reports and federal maps both show that there is significant flood risk on Harris' block, but no one told Harris anything about it when he and his wife bought their house in 2005.

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

MCEVERS: Now he has to pay 1,200 bucks a year for flood insurance.

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

MCEVERS: It's not just people who own their homes, and it's not just floods. Every year, millions of Americans get no information about the risk of flood or wildfire when they're deciding to rent or buy a place to live - no information about risk, no warning, not from a landlord, real estate agent, not from any seller, appraiser or home inspector. And the reason, according to a new NPR analysis, is that in many places, no one has to tell you. This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Friday, Oct. 23.

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MCEVERS: This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. OK, so let's just start with the numbers. One-third of Americans rent. Many people in this one-third live in cities, and cities are flooding more.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Most of America's fourth largest city is now underwater.

MCEVERS: Houston in 2017.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Massive flooding swept through Boston, turning streets into slow-moving rivers.

MCEVERS: Boston in 2018.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The all-day downpour causing flooding on the streets of Atlanta...

MCEVERS: Atlanta in 2019. If you're a renter, a flood can wipe you out financially. You can get displaced from your apartment or your house. Your stuff can get destroyed, not to mention the obvious - disasters can put your life at risk.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Take a look at these photos that some viewers sent us. I mean, these cars are almost completely covered.

MCEVERS: Here's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

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REBECCA HERSHER: You get it. Flooding is a serious problem in a lot of U.S. cities, even ones that aren't on the coast, because climate change is driving more extreme rain. Marcella Bondie Keenan runs climate programs for the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

MARCELLA BONDIE KEENAN: People could just be moving around the city and, you know, be sitting on sort of a flooding time bomb and have no idea of it.

HERSHER: That's because in most places, landlords aren't required to disclose anything about flooding to their tenants, either past flooding in the apartment or future flood risk. Take Chicago. Bondie Keenan says a lot of the most affordable housing there are so-called garden apartments where most of the living space is below ground. The same is true in other cities where flood risk is increasing - New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. And so people with the least money are often living in the most danger. Lori Burns lives in Chicago and works with Higher Ground, a national advocacy group for people who have survived floods.

LORI BURNS: People in garden apartments - literally everything they own is ruined, done, gone, disappeared. Like, just - they had to throw it away. Like, their whole house is ruined.

HERSHER: And, Burns says, even people who rent multistory houses are being hurt by flooding. It's happening in her own neighborhood, Chatham, on the South Side of Chicago. It's a pretty part of the city.

BURNS: Primarily single-family homes, tree-lined streets, small backyards, garage, alley.

HERSHER: She says no one would ever guess that the neighborhood floods.

BURNS: There is no huge or even small natural body of water anywhere near us.

HERSHER: But the neighborhood has had the most flood damage of any place in Chicago in recent years. When it rains, water pours into a lot of finished basements.

BURNS: TVs, sofas, games - you know, this is a hangout space - or even extra bedrooms are downstairs.

HERSHER: She says people who own homes in the neighborhood know not to turn the basement into a living space. Like many states, Illinois requires that homebuyers be told if the basement floods or if the home is in a floodplain. But there's no requirement for landlords to tell tenants the same information. And the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association confirms that flood information is, quote, "not routinely shared with tenants." And nationwide, many realtors and real estate developers groups have opposed more stringent flood disclosure laws. Marcella Bondie Keenan says the long-term effects of not disclosing flood risk are enormous.

BONDIE KEENAN: It's not just property damage, but it's people's health impacts. And it's their lost wage time to do cleanups.

HERSHER: Health impacts like the ones from mold, not to mention the mental health impacts of losing everything you own. And undisclosed flood risk is an even bigger problem this year. Tenants in flood-prone apartments are just one flood away from being displaced during a pandemic.

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MCEVERS: NPR's Rebecca Hersher. So what if you're buying a home instead of renting? Twenty-nine states - including Illinois, like you just heard - have laws that require flood disclosure. That might sound pretty good, but most of those laws don't work very well. For instance, some allow the information to be provided to you late in the process, like after you've already made a deposit on a house. And the disclosure form could be just one piece of paper in a massive stack of inspections and information. Experts say it's likely that a lot of people are totally missing it. Or say you avoid buying in a designated flood zone. You might not know if you're still close to one, and it's not like water knows where the boundaries are.

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JENNIFER MONTANO: Yeah, so that would have been our fridge over there, the - right there - and our stove. And that's the microwave sitting on top of it, which - because we had an over...

MCEVERS: If you think the laws around flood disclosure sound murky, the laws around wildfire disclosure are even worse.

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J MONTANO: So basically, we shared it with our neighbors next door.

MCEVERS: Jennifer Montano and her family lived in a duplex in Vacaville, Calif. This summer, fire came through, and they had to evacuate.

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J MONTANO: There would have been a wall here, and that would have been their half. And this was our half.

MCEVERS: When they were able to go back, their home was basically gone - fridge burnt down to a charred metal box. The piano looked like a ball of wires.

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ALIYAH MONTANO: The mug.

MCEVERS: Jennifer's 10-year-old daughter Aliyah pulled out a piece of red-and-green mug.

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A MONTANO: Yay. Part of Christmas survived.

J MONTANO: That was it - part of Christmas in there.

MCEVERS: Their house is just one of more than 10,000 buildings that have been destroyed by wildfires this year. That destruction, like the damage caused by floods and other disasters, costs all of us U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year. And with few states requiring any disclosure about wildfire risk, many people like the Montanos have no idea it could happen to them. They talked to NPR's Lauren Sommer. She picks up their story from here.

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LAUREN SOMMER: It was late at night when they got the alert that the fire was moving faster than anyone realized.

J MONTANO: Two sheriffs, I believe, showed up and said, you guys have 10 minutes to go.

SOMMER: She and her husband Ryan grabbed what they could before running to their cars.

RYAN MONTANO: Once you see you see fear in a firefighter's eyes, that's when you know things aren't good.

J MONTANO: Yeah.

SOMMER: When she and Ryan moved here seven years ago, they loved the hills and the oak trees. The risk of losing their home in a wildfire wasn't part of the conversation.

J MONTANO: No, I don't - it wasn't, at least, on my plate. I don't know about Ryan's, but...

R MONTANO: We had a good preparation plan for evacuation, but you can prepare to only take so much. You can't just throw your house in the back of a truck and go.

SOMMER: This is a pretty common story. Close to 60 million homes have been within less than a mile of a wildfire since 1992. But many people move in without really knowing what the risk is.

KIMIKO BARRETT: It should be part of that initial conversation from the very beginning.

SOMMER: Kimiko Barrett is a policy analyst at Headwaters Economics. She says when you buy a home in many states, there are disclosure rules, information the seller has to share with the buyer. More than half of states have rules about disclosing a property's risk of flooding. But for fire, just two western states - California and Oregon - require any mention of wildfire risk, according to an NPR analysis.

BARRETT: If we've done it with flood, I don't understand why we wouldn't also want to do it with wildfire and similarly with hurricanes. I think the way climate change is impacting all aspects of where and how we live and under what conditions, we're going to have to start to think about all of those climatic hazards in a new way.

SOMMER: Next year, California will require even more wildfire information to be disclosed, like whether a home is complying with rules to clear flammable brush. But that information often comes when someone has already decided to buy a house and is signing the deal. And experts like Alice Hill say that may not be the best time. She worked on disaster planning in the Obama administration.

ALICE HILL: Imagine that you're sitting and buying your first home. You're so excited about it you're thinking about measuring the curtains. And someone puts a huge stack of papers in front of you, and in that stack is some very small print. You're just not going to register it at that point. You're too far along.

SOMMER: So some communities are trying something else.

ERIC LOVGREN: Sounds like we're walking through a bed of matchsticks.

SOMMER: Eric Lovgren is walking around a house in Eagle, Colo., with its new owner, Kathryn Eddy. He's looking for all the ways the house is vulnerable to a wildfire.

LOVGREN: Is this cement siding or...

KATHRYN EDDY: It's cement board.

LOVGREN: So cement fiberboard - even better.

SOMMER: Lovgren works for the REALFire program in Eagle County, which provides home inspections for wildfire risk because a house is at risk even if a fire doesn't burn right up to it. Many are ignited by embers blown far ahead of the fire.

LOVGREN: There's one vulnerable thing that I see, and that is your firewood pile that's underneath that window. And that's a real common thing.

SOMMER: Small things can make a big difference, like cutting back dry brush, cleaning out gutters or making sure attic vents are covered by wire mesh. It's all new to Eddy, who just moved from Tennessee.

EDDY: I looked at the property that I just purchased, and I see a lot of dead trees. And I, you know, want to protect the - help protect the community and my neighborhood.

SOMMER: A lot of new homeowners are referred to the program by real estate agents. Local realtor Mike Budd says talking about fire risk doesn't seem to hurt his sales.

MIKE BUDD: I think it's adding a service which, to me, enhances the particular realtor that's offering the service to them.

SOMMER: Still, this is only a voluntary program. Tougher wildfire rules were rejected in 2013, when a Colorado task force recommended that wildfire risk be disclosed in home sales. The state realtor's association successfully fought against it.

BUDD: We were just coming out of the real estate bust, and we had a lot of foreclosures. We felt that what was being recommended wasn't taking those things into consideration.

SOMMER: Several other counties in Colorado are adopting similar voluntary inspection programs. But Lovgren says wildfires need to be on people's minds even when there isn't a crisis.

LOVGREN: The smoke is in the air. The neighboring community's on evacuation. Then people are really paying attention. But it's - how do you keep their attention? That is the trick.

SOMMER: To really reduce fire risk, you need entire neighborhoods to work on it because in a warming climate, the chances of extreme fires are only going up.

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MCEVERS: NPR's Lauren Sommer. Everything you heard on the show today was part of a big series of stories on climate risk from Lauren and from NPR's Rebecca Hersher, who you heard earlier. If you are moving to or already live somewhere where fire or flood might be a risk, they put together a guide of questions you can ask and advice on how to get answers. There are links to that in our episode notes. This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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