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The States Where the Most New Homes Are at Risk of Flooding

People inspect the floodwaters submerging Broadway in Westville, N.J. Thursday, June 20, 2019. Severe storms containing heavy rains and strong winds spurred flooding across southern New Jersey.

People inspect the floodwaters submerging Broadway in Westville, N.J. Thursday, June 20, 2019. Severe storms containing heavy rains and strong winds spurred flooding across southern New Jersey. Matt Rourke/AP Photo

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A new report warns 17,800 coastal homes built after 2009 will be within the 10-year floodplain by 2050 without any reduction in greenhouse gas pollution.

The rate of new home construction in the areas most at risk for flooding is outpacing development in safer parts of a third of coastal states, according to a new report. 

New Jersey leads states in the number of houses built in 10-year flood-risk zones, with more than 4,500 homes, built between 2010 and 2017, according to a report released this week by Climate Central and Zillow. The $4.6 billion in housing development is likely driven by reconstruction following destruction and flooding from superstorm Sandy in 2012, the report notes. 

Connecticut leads the states in the rate of housing development in flood-prone areas. The 478 homes built between 2010 and 2017 in areas within the 10-year floodplain represents housing growth that is 3.5 times that of development in safer places, the report found. 

“Across the United States, coastal communities have recently built tens of thousands of houses in areas at risk of future flooding driven by sea level rise from climate change,” the Climate Central report states. “That has put homeowners, renters, and investors in danger of steep personal and financial losses in the years ahead.”

Areas that fall within a 10-year floodplain are regarded as having a 10 percent probability of flooding each year. Roughly 17,800 coastal homes built after 2009 run the 10 percent flood risk by 2050 without any reduction in greenhouse gas pollution, the report states. 

The fast pace of construction in flood-prone locations was no surprise to flooding experts, who said state and local governments have had little incentive to discourage or restrict development in risky areas. 

“Our national flood risk insurance program doesn’t teach communities how to avoid development in high-risk areas,” said Larry Larson, director emeritus and a senior policy advisor with the Association of State Floodplain Manager. “It shows them where the high-risk area is and if you want to build, here’s how you build. It’s not an avoidance technique.”

Despite the rising threat of flooding, it still pays off economically to build along the coastline, said Robert Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

“There are so many good reasons to buy and build and invest in coastal property because those individual property owners are really not having to pay or internalize the real risk of where they are building,” Young said. 

Instead, the cost is borne by federal taxpayers through disaster relief programs, the federally subsidized National Flood Insurance Program, and projects undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said, naming a few of the ways local losses are offset. 

“If the entire cost of building in those places had to be borne locally there would probably be better decision made but right now that is not what is happening,” Young said. 

Congress is contemplating plans to reauthorize the flood insurance program, while the Trump administration has announced its own proposal through FEMA to evaluate flood risk (and potentially hike premiums on the riskiest properties).  

Lawmakers representing coastal states have cautioned that flood insurance increases that are too extreme will price middle-class people out of their homes. 

"If flood insurance becomes so expensive that people can't afford it, then their dreams will be washed away," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said this spring at a news conference on Long Island, according to Newsday. Parts of Long Island in New York were hit hard by superstorm Sandy. 

The Climate Control report found that counties with the most homes in the 10-year floodplain include Orange and Cape May counties in New Jersey, Sussex County in Delaware and Galveston County in Texas. 

The report notes that while many municipalities are developing plans to cope with the rising sea level, the pattern of recent housing construction “may be a more robust guide to which places are taking the threat most seriously.”

Just this week, efforts were underway to mitigate flood risks in Galveston County. Crews worked in the 20,000-person town of Dickinson to unclog tributaries and bayous, local media reported. 

"This should have been done years ago," Mayor Julie Masters told the Associated Press. "Residents are absolutely happy to finally see something happening. Planning for this has taken months and months and months."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report last month which found the number of high-tide flood days in coastal cities has increased significantly. The agency named 40 places where flooding is accelerating, mostly on the east coast. 

“The current trajectory suggests a floodier future,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer for NOAA.  

The National Flood Insurance Program limits payouts to $250,000 per household, but there is no income cutoff for the program. That means people who pay for construction of million dollar homes damaged in floods can still qualify for federal assistance even if they have the means to rebuild on their own, Larson said. 

“Our policies aren’t necessarily geared in favor of avoiding high-risk development,” he said. 

Without taking drastic action to shift the cost burden to property owners, private insurance, or localities, experts say it will be difficult to curb development so long as the market is profitable. 

“I don’t know how we fix all of this unless we ween these localities and the states off of all of the subsidies like the phenomenal amount of disaster relief and all of the Army Corps of Engineers’ coastal protection projects that pump billions of dollars of sand up in front of those ocean-front homes,” Young said. “If the entire cost of building in those places had to be borne locally there would probably be better decision made. But right now that is not what is happening.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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