Millions Of U.S. Homes Face An Expensive Flooding Threat : Short Wave More than 4 million U.S. homes face substantial risk of expensive flood damage, according to new research. On top of that, NPR climate reporter Rebecca Hersher found that communities where flood insurance is already unaffordable face potentially catastrophic damage — including to mental and physical health.

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Millions Of U.S. Homes Face An Expensive Flooding Threat

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Pastor Aaron Trigg has a lot of good things to say about Rainelle, W.Va., where he used to live.

AARON TRIGG: People were just happy and joyous and had a lot of expectation for the future.

HERSHER: Rainelle is small. About 1,500 people live there. It's got a school and a grocery store and a couple stoplights. Pastor Aaron lived close to Main Street...

TRIGG: I lived right down the street from the baseball field.

HERSHER: ...In a one-story house that backed up to a creek.

TRIGG: And before the flood happened, you could hear the baseball field just going crazy. And the football field - especially at football time, it was just wild. And I would take my dog and walk down there and watch the kids play and watch the cheerleaders and the football players...

HERSHER: The flood is like the dividing line in Rainelle - how things were before June 2016 and how they were after - because everything changed.

There was a really big rainstorm - really heavy. A lot of water fell in just a few hours. And just so you can imagine, this part of the country is the Appalachian Mountains. There's a lot of fog, big gorges and rivers, and a lot of towns are built on the low ground, in the valleys, on the rivers. That's how Rainelle is. The creek runs through the middle of town.

Pastor Aaron was at home when the creek started rising.

TRIGG: And you could hear the water up in the mountains crashing trees, and the water started to just gushing. And next thing you know, it was at our waist.

HERSHER: It was evening.

TRIGG: Very restless night.

HERSHER: Trigg's house was already underwater, so he took shelter on the second floor of his neighbor's house.

TRIGG: You could hear people screaming and hollering for help, especially a lot of elderly people that - we tried to get some of them out, but we couldn't. And you could hear them hollering for help and people screaming and hollering and the water gushing. It was a real restless night, a real - just no peace at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRIGG: I did a lot of praying that night.

HERSHER: Rescuers got to Trigg by boat in the morning. In all, at least 23 people in West Virginia died in the floods. And since then, a lot of people have left. Businesses have closed. The town is struggling. And I think it's easy to look at a place like Rainelle and think it's an outlier - you know, a tiny town wiped out by an act of God. But that is not what I see.

Rainelle is not an outlier. It's a bellwether because one of the big problems in Rainelle after the flood was that people didn't have the money to rebuild their homes. And that is something that's getting more and more widespread as climate-driven flooding gets worse.

I'm NPR climate reporter Rebecca Hersher.

SOFIA: And I'm your host, Maddie Sofia. Climate change means more expensive flood damage to people's homes. So today on the show, we get to the bottom of who's protected and who stands to lose the most. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK, Becky. Let's start with just reviewing the connection between climate change and flooding.

HERSHER: Lovely.

SOFIA: OK. I can start 'cause you've taught me stuff. So the thing I think about the most when it comes to climate change and flooding is sea level rise. Right? Like, ice is melting, oceans rising - that means water in homes.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. Good job. A-plus for intro to sea level rise.

SOFIA: Thank you.

HERSHER: And yeah, I think of that type of flooding as, like, slow water in homes, like gradual encroachment of the water, maybe eroding your yard or putting water in the driveway during high tides. It can also mean something more violent, though, right? As sea levels get higher, it means more water from storm surge during hurricanes. So when we think about sea level rise, we have to kind of remember both gradual and violent flooding that can happen with that.

SOFIA: Right, right. But this happened in West Virginia. So you know, expensive flood damage can happen really far from the ocean - right? - like in Appalachia.

HERSHER: Yeah. And that's because of climate-driven extreme rain. Basically, the atmosphere is hotter. It holds more moisture. And so when it rains, it's more likely to pour. And that causes rivers to rise. And in places with mountains or steep hills or lots of pavement, it can cause flash floods that are really powerful and really deadly. So most of the eastern U.S. is seeing a lot more of this kind of rain, and that is what caused the 2016 West Virginia floods.

SOFIA: And what do we know about the impact of all of that flooding?

HERSHER: So there's actually new data that looks at this exact thing. It's from the First Street Foundation, which is a flood risk nonprofit. And they looked at the costs of flooding. Their data shows that more than 4 million homes in the U.S. are at risk for expensive flood damage and that those costs will go up as the Earth gets hotter. And the homes are concentrated on the coasts and in Appalachia, although there are other hotspots in other parts of the country.

SOFIA: Yeah, which is huge - right? - because in the U.S., a lot of people put their entire life savings into their home. It's...

HERSHER: Right.

SOFIA: I don't know. It's seen as a way to build wealth, to save for retirement, that kind of stuff.

HERSHER: Yes. And floods can cause really expensive damage, which can upend that whole plan if the homeowner doesn't have the money they need to fix the house.

SOFIA: And do people generally have the money to fix that damage?

HERSHER: That's the question, right? And the answer is that a lot of people probably don't have the money to fix it. Most Americans do not have significant cash savings, which means they would be relying mostly on flood insurance to repair their house if a flood happened. But previous research has already shown that a lot of people who need flood insurance don't have it...

SOFIA: Right.

HERSHER: ...Either because they don't know they need it or because they can't afford it.

SOFIA: So what does that mean for families? Like, if there's a big rainstorm and you end up with 2 feet of water in your house and you can't afford to fix it, what happens?

HERSHER: There's actually been a fair amount of research about that. And basically, because housing is so important to mental and physical health, not having savings or insurance can have huge impacts on families.

CAROLYN KOUSKY: There's research showing that having the financial resources to recover that you get through insurance has all these follow-on impacts on well-being, like physical and mental health, the stability of families.

HERSHER: One of the people who studies it is Carolyn Kousky at the University of Pennsylvania.

KOUSKY: If you don't have the finances you need to recover, then families have to make really difficult trade-offs, like maybe forego spending on medical expenses because, otherwise, they don't have a safe home. And so having insurance protects those other types of needs. And there's also work that shows that as more people have insurance, community-level outcomes are better, too.

SOFIA: Becky, what does she mean by community-level outcomes? Like, an entire neighborhood will do better if more people have flood insurance after a flood. Is that right?

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And the reverse is also true. So in places where a large percentage of homeowners can't afford flood insurance or afford to fix their homes, a flood can destabilize the whole neighborhood or even the whole town. And it seems like that's what happened in Rainelle. At least that's what Pastor Aaron was hearing in the late-night calls he was getting from his congregants.

TRIGG: The way I could say it is they were hopeless because they - a lot of people in Rainelle were poor, and they didn't have insurance. They didn't have any way to have any backup plan.

HERSHER: Trigg himself, his house was destroyed. He stuck around for a few years before he moved away for a new job at a different church.

TRIGG: Rainelle has changed a lot because a lot of the businesses are starting to close down. They just can't make it because a lot of the people have moved out of town, and there's not that money coming in.

HERSHER: And there are other towns and neighborhoods that are facing this same problem - you know, places where people don't have a lot of money, the local government doesn't have a lot of money, and they are one major flood away from a potentially existential crisis. A city council person from Rainelle told me he doesn't think that this town could survive another flood. And he also told me he has a plan for an awesome-sounding Appalachian music festival.

SOFIA: (Laughter) OK. That sounds delightful, actually. But - OK, this sounds like a big problem that's only going to get bigger as the Earth gets hotter, right? So is there any plan to help people afford flood insurance?

HERSHER: The short answer is not really.

SOFIA: OK.

HERSHER: And this is actually a place where climate change really shows up with a vengeance. Climate change means more flood risk - right? - which means actually flood insurance prices need to get higher overall, not lower. Right? Like, the cost of flooding is going up, not down. So even though flood insurance is already too expensive for a lot of people who need it the most, it's actually still underpriced from a strictly mathematical point of view. So people who can afford it, they are underpaying.

SOFIA: OK. Slow that down for me. What does that mean exactly? How can it both be too cheap for people who have it and too expensive for people who don't? I think I get it, but I don't know.

HERSHER: Right. No, it's confusing. So basically, if flood insurance were "correctly priced" - and I'm putting that in air quotes - according to the insurance math, then the money that homeowners who have insurance policies pay each month for those policies would cover the cost of flood damage for their houses, right? But it doesn't.

And that's a problem for two big reasons. First, it means that there's a lot of debt piling up because the government provides the majority of residential flood insurance in this country.

SOFIA: Oh, OK.

HERSHER: So they - and I'll even say we, taxpayers, are on the hook to pay. And second, the other problem, is that when flood insurance is underpriced, it actually gives developers - home developers a huge incentive to build houses in flood-prone places.

SOFIA: Right, right, right - because people want to live in waterfront houses where the insurance is pretty cheap. So that makes it easier for the developers to sell them.

HERSHER: Exactly, which the federal government should not be encouraging because it will end up costing the government a lot when there is a flood. And it can be dangerous for the people who end up living in those homes that are flood-prone.

SOFIA: Right.

HERSHER: You know, now is not the time, with climate change, to be building new homes right on the water. So the federal government, specifically FEMA, is actually planning to make flood insurance more expensive. And their goal is that the amount that people pay will be equal to what the government pays out after a flood...

SOFIA: OK.

HERSHER: ...Because there's no insurance company here, right? FEMA provides almost all of this insurance. And I should say, climate and flooding experts think that this is an important thing for FEMA to do - to stop giving incentives for building in the flood plain. But higher prices are likely to make flood insurance unaffordable for even more people.

SOFIA: Right. I mean, is FEMA planning to do anything about that?

HERSHER: Well, here's what FEMA says. So first, they want to make clear that they have not announced all the particulars of the new flood insurance prices yet. That's coming later this spring, and it's supposed to go into effect this fall. FEMA also warns that the First Street Foundation's analysis is only an estimate of the cost of flood damage and that FEMA didn't provide the researchers there with any details about the new flood insurance pricing plan. So that's what they say.

In terms of your question, though - what can FEMA do? - FEMA has acknowledged that flood insurance isn't affordable for everyone, especially for poorer people who need its protection the most. But the agency doesn't have the power to fix that problem. Only Congress has that power.

SOFIA: OK. So then what could Congress do to make flood insurance more affordable?

HERSHER: Well, Congress could subsidize flood insurance for people who don't make a lot of money, for example, or change the requirements about who has to buy flood insurance so the number of people paying gets bigger and the price can go down. And those ideas have come up before. So far, they haven't gotten very far. But President Biden says that adapting to climate change in an equitable way is a priority. So who knows?

SOFIA: OK. Well, I mean, we'll keep an eye on this. And you know what? I wasn't prepared for all this stuff about insurance to not be boring. But you know what? It mostly wasn't.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHER: Great. Mostly not boring is my goal. But actually, seriously, flood insurance is really interesting. So it's not even that hard.

But wait. Maddie, before we wrap up, can I share one more thing? It's about that town Rainelle.

SOFIA: Sure.

HERSHER: OK. So remember I told you there's a city council person in Rainelle who has a plan for an Appalachian music festival?

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yes, I do remember that.

HERSHER: His name is John Wyatt. And in addition to being a city council member and a candidate for mayor, he is also a musician and the owner of a music shop in town.

JOHN WYATT: It was the music, I think, that...

HERSHER: And when I interviewed him, he told me that sometimes he expresses himself most clearly when he's singing.

WYATT: Something about music touches a place that nothing else can. I mean, it just gets in there to the heart and soul of people's lives and everything else sometimes.

(Playing guitar, vocalizing).

HERSHER: And he actually - he sang me a song that he wrote about Rainelle and about the mountains of West Virginia.

SOFIA: Go on, John Wyatt. Go on.

WYATT: (Singing) It's song of the mountains, so much more than words and melody. It's a song of the mountains, echoes of a people proud and free.

SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. The audio engineer for this episode was Patrick Murray. You're listening to "Song Of The Mountains," written and performed by John Wyatt, aka the Appalachian. I'm Maddie Sofia. This is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

WYATT: (Singing) City life is not the life for me. And I know I've been away too long to hear the voices of their soul. Those West Virginia hills are calling me. Music from the very soul sung from the heart by young and old, those West Virginia hills are calling me.

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