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The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him: adam.belz@gazcomm.com

The shortcomings of American flood policy

IOWA CITY — The pace of new development and changes in the climate will make future floods even more disastrous than past ones, a flood-risk expert said last night in Iowa City.

America needs national flood protection standards and more stringent rules governing floodplain development, said Greg Baecher, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland who kicked off a two-day symposium on floods and government policy at the University of Iowa.

Baecher pointed out several things Eastern Iowans already know: the 100-year and 500-year floodplains are ill-defined, people tend to forget about floods very quickly and a woefully inadequate number buy flood insurance.

“Time goes by and there’s no flood,” Baecher said. “We start maybe to forget.”

He said the federal government should define acceptable flood risk and enforce land-use rules that keep the risk below that level. He said 100-year flood protection is not adequate, and the concept of the 100-year flood plain has lulled many Americans into complacency despite their vulnerability to floods.

“We need to formulate an integrated approach with all levels of government,” Baecher said. “We build levees, and people think that they are safe. People think they eliminate risk. They don’t. They reduce risk.”

He said 500-year- or 1,000-year- flood protection would be appropriate, from a cost-benefit perspective. The problem, he admitted, is that types of government policy that would bring about such protection require difficult political choices — outlawing construction in parts of the floodplain, forcing people to move, forcing people to buy flood insurance. Hundreds of miles of levees across the country — such as the one that protected northwest Cedar Rapids — were not built by the federal government, and are likely to fail, he said.

Baecher spent much of his speech recapping American flood history and the government’s response. He returned again and again to a post-1993 presidential study led by his colleague Gerry Galloway, which called for stricter land-use regulation and identified the lack of flood insurance as a major problem.

Most recommendations in the report were ignored, and the number of flood-insured homes has not increased. Galloway was supposed to speak Tuesday, but had to bow out because of a family medical emergency. Baecher took his place.

The symposium is the third installment in the University of Iowa’s Forkenbrock Series on Public Policy. It continues today and Thursday. Admission is $25 per day, $10 for students. For more information, visit http://ppc.uiowa.edu or contact the Public Policy Center, (319) 335-6800.

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3 Responses

  1. Jay says:

    “Baecher spent much of his speech recapping American flood history ….. and identified the lack of flood insurance as a major problem.”

    While this is surely true in an historical context, there is readily available flood insurance today. It is however one added cost carried by a homeowner -and- there is a great deal of mis-information that circulates about flood insurance.

    One Gazette story in the aftermath of this last summer’s floods quoted someone saying that flood insurance didn’t cover you if your mortgage was paid and you owned your home outright. I called my insurance agent with whom I carry flood insurance and got a very different answer.

    That topic might make a good blog or article, especially with an intent to clarify subtle clauses or circumstances which are misunderstood frequently. Thanks for the good coverage!

  2. adambelz says:

    That has been a source of misunderstanding. Probably what the Gazette story was referring to was the fact that one is REQUIRED to carry flood insurance if he or she hasn’t paid off the mortgage. This requirement does not apply when someone owns the house outright, or buys a home on contract. Everyone can buy flood insurance. Even if you live on top of a mountain, you are allowed to buy it. But from what I understand, insurance agents were prone to discourage people from buying it if their home had never flooded before — probably out of a desire to save their clients money.

  3. Mike says:

    “the fact that one is REQUIRED to carry flood insurance if he or she hasn’t paid off the mortgage. This requirement does not apply when someone owns the house outright,”

    That’s probably not the best way to describe it, anytime a structure located in a Special Hazard Flood Plain is used as collateral for a loan from a Federally backed or regulated lender, the lender is required by law to ensure that the stucture is covered with flood insurance for the entire term of the loan. Structure as used here includes homes.

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