Po­lit­i­cal in­stead of practical rul­ings con­trib­ute to the cy­cle of de­struc­tion

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Collette

Of­fi­cials in Hous­ton and across the coun­try are fail­ing to en­force a cen­tral pil­lar of the tax­payer-sub­si­dized Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram: Mak­ing sure se­verely dam­aged prop­er­ties are el­e­vated or re­moved from flood plains.

Thou­sands of such homes get re­built and then flood again, of­ten for more than they are worth, cost­ing tax­pay­ers more than $1 bil­lion in re­peat losses.

The deeply in­debted pro­gram is set to lapse July 31 with­out con­gres­sional reau­tho­riza­tion, and law­mak­ers have put for­ward a host of po­ten­tial re­forms to tie to that vote, but none di­rectly ad­dress the costly prob­lem of poorly en­forced el­e­va­tion re­quire­ments.

Texas has more flooded prop­er­ties with ev­i­dence of this prob­lem than any other state but Louisiana; Hous­ton has more than any other city, a Hous­ton Chron­i­cle in­ves­ti­ga­tion found. Seven of the na­tion’s 10 most fre­quently sub­stan­tially dam­aged prop­er­ties are in Hous­ton. Those seven have had 107 dam­age claims to­tal­ing $9 mil­lion, even though the com­bined value of those build­ings is just $426,000.

Un­der fed­eral rules, lo­cal of­fi­cials are sup­posed to as­sess flood

and re­quire de­mo­li­tion or el­e­va­tion if the dam­age is es­ti­mated at 50 per­cent or more of the home’s value. But telling trau­ma­tized flood vic­tims that they will have to un­der­take ex­pen­sive home el­e­va­tion projects is po­lit­i­cally and emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult, so of­fi­cials low­ball the dam­age es­ti­mates, putting peo­ple and homes back in vul­ner­a­ble places, the Chron­i­cle found.

The prob­lem had largely been known only anec­do­tally, but the Chron­i­cle’s anal­y­sis used govern­ment data to bol­ster the re­ports of of­fi­cials and flood vic­tims in swamped com­mu­ni­ties, iden­ti­fy­ing thou­sands of losses that could have been avoided and homes put back in harm’s way be­cause re­quire­ments weren’t fol­lowed.

Lynda Bates’ 2,000-square­foot house on Galve­ston Island, for in­stance, is in no bet­ter a po­si­tion than it was when Hur­ri­cane Ike swamped it with seven feet of wa­ter in 2008. She and her hus­band gut­ted it. Then they re­built at ground level, even though their front porch is just 300 feet from Of­fatts Bayou.

The city of Galve­ston did not ob­ject. It de­clared her home just 44 per­cent dam­aged, while ap­praisal records show it lost 67 per­cent of its value. Scores of Bates’ neigh­bors did the same thing.

Ten years later, about 90 nearby homes re­main at ground level, even though they are in a zone pre­dicted to flood in a 100-year storm, which has about a 26 per­cent chance of hap­pen­ing dur­ing a 30-year mort­gage.

“We were in a hurry,” said Bates, a 70-year-old re­tired bank su­per­vi­sor. “We wanted to get back in our home. The city never said any­thing to us.”

Be­cause they get the bless­ing of the lo­cal govern­ment, home­own­ers such as Bates can con­tinue to buy flood in­sur­ance at dis­counted or sub­si­dized rates through the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram, which reached $25 bil­lion in debt be­fore the storms last year.

Galve­ston of­fi­cials said they did the best they could un­der ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, sud­denly con­fronting con­struc­tion per­mit­ting for an en­tire city all at once, af­ter the storm in­un­dated most of the city.

But it’s not just those houses on those two streets in Galve­ston. It’s hun­dreds more in that city, and thou­sands more across the na­tion.

Ev­ery­one pays

The Chron­i­cle ex­am­ined claims records for more than 36,000 “se­vere repet­i­tive loss” prop­er­ties — the most fre­quently flooded prop­er­ties in the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram na­tion­wide. About 16 per­cent had ev­i­dence of be­ing sub­stan­tially dam­aged — be­yond the 50 per­cent thresh­old — at least once be­fore flood­ing again. This data sug­gests their dam­age as­sess­ments were too low or not en­forced.

Prop­er­ties that avoided the 50 per­cent re­quire­ment in that frac­tion of the pro­gram have cost at least $1.1 bil­lion in in­sur­ance claims — twice what the build­ings are worth. The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, which ad­min­is­ters flood in­sur­ance, does not re­lease de­tailed data on all flood claims, so the Chron­i­cle’s ex­am­i­na­tion re­veals only a slice of the prob­lem.

One of the na­tion’s worst prop­er­ties in this re­gard, a house on the San Jac­into River in King­wood, has had 22 flood in­sur­ance claims to­tal­ing more than $2.5 mil­lion since 1979. That’s at least eight times what the house is worth, ac­cord­ing to the data.

Most of the in­sur­ance pay­outs on that home could have been avoided if Hous­ton had held to the fed­eral re­quire­ment that it be el­e­vated or torn down, the data sug­gest. The prop­erty first had a claim that reached the 50 per­cent thresh­old in 1989.

The process of as­sess­ing sub­stan­tial dam­age con­tin­ues af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, and it’s opaque.

Hous­ton of­fi­cials have mailed more than 2,200 no­tices of sub­stan­tial dam­age to Har­vey-af­fected home­own­ers. They say only whether a house is sub­stan­tially dam­aged, but don’t show the cal­cu­la­tions used to make the de­ter­mi­na­tion. The city could not read­ily pro­vide data that could be used to ver­ify those as­sess­ments, or to de­ter­mine whether the city is un­der­count­ing sub­stan­tial dam­age. Of­fi­cials said the in­for­ma­tion is spread out across too many de­part­ments and com­put­ers. In some cases, it’s only in a pa­per file.

Hous­ton will not re­veal the ad­dresses of sub­stan­tially dam­aged build­ings, cit­ing pri­vacy laws. The let­ters rep­re­sent only 1 per­cent of the 204,000 Hous­ton homes and apart­ment com­plexes flooded in Har­vey.

Like other com­mu­ni­ties, the city has few re­sources to po­lice thou­sands of flood re­con­struc­tion per­mits at once, said Jamila John­son, the city’s flood plain ad­bor­hood. min­is­tra­tor. A key prob­lem, she said, is that FEMA will make a claim pay­out be­fore a prop­erty owner gets re­build­ing per­mits from the city. This re­sults in un­told amounts of un­per­mit­ted re­pairs and vi­o­la­tions of el­e­va­tion re­quire­ments.

“I just want the NFIP to be a bet­ter part­ner on en­force­ment,” she said. “I know I’m not the only flood plain man­ager who says this.”

FEMA of­fi­cials have said they are shift­ing re­sources to bet­ter mon­i­tor the is­sue in cities that have large num­bers of flood claims.

The ex­tent of repet­i­tive losses has long been known, but the Chron­i­cle’s anal­y­sis of fed­eral data shows that in­cor­rect dam­age as­sess­ments are a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­ly­ing prob­lem.

“No­body wants to tell a flood sur­vivor, af­ter they’ve lost every­thing, that, oh, by the way, you have to raise your house four feet,” ex­plained Chad Bergin­nis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of State Flood­plain Man­agers.

Or worse, tell them that they must leave their fa­mil­iar neigh­dam­ages So cal­cu­la­tions of dam­age be­come po­lit­i­cal in­stead of math­e­mat­i­cal, be­cause the fed­eral govern­ment puts the bur­den of that de­ci­sion on lo­cal of­fi­cials, even when the home is fed­er­ally in­sured.

Ev­ery­one pays for bad as­sess­ments. Amer­i­cans pay in the costs of dis­as­ters. In higher flood wa­ters as a re­sult of build­ings stand­ing where they shouldn’t be. In mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture projects to pro­tect high-risk homes. By be­com­ing ten­ants and own­ers of re­paired build­ings in high-risk ar­eas where devel­op­ers have turned a buck and left. And, most di­rectly, in the costs of fed­er­ally sub­si­dized flood in­sur­ance and the U.S. trea­sury’s bil­lion­dol­lar bailouts of the pro­gram.

“The social cost of try­ing to de­fend build­ings that are deep in the flood plain is re­ally high, and prob­a­bly not re­ally fair to the rest of their neigh­bors,” said David Con­rad, a con­sul­tant with the flood plain man­agers as­so­ci­a­tion.

‘Red flags all over’

Rare in­stances in which lo­cal data is avail­able demon­strate how easy it is to sub­vert the 50 per­cent rule.

A data­base of dam­age as­sess­ments from Galve­ston af­ter Ike, paired with rec­ol­lec­tions by of­fi­cials there, shows how of­fi­cials han­dled thou­sands of as­sess­ments, plac­ing homes back at risk near the wa­ters that in­un­dated them un­der a 19-foot storm surge.

Among more than 5,000 dam­age as­sess­ments city­wide re­viewed by the Chron­i­cle, most of them were de­clared be­low the 50 per­cent mark, in­clud­ing dozens of homes that took on eight to 15 feet of hur­ri­cane storm surge.

Five feet is usu­ally enough to be con­sid­ered ma­jor dam­age both by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers. Even less wa­ter was needed to meet that thresh­old in Ike be­cause drenched homes sat in the sum­mer heat for 11 days while res­i­dents waited for au­thor­i­ties to let them back on the island, al­low­ing mold and rot to set in.

Yet Galve­ston as­sess­ments bore al­most no cor­re­la­tion to the depth of wa­ter in­side the homes, which is usu­ally a pre­dic­tor of dam­age sever­ity.

“Three feet or more wa­ter on the first floor will al­most al­ways throw a frame-built struc­ture over 50 per­cent,” said Paul Os­man, flood plain man­ager for Illi­nois, a state known for ad­her­ing well to the 50 per­cent rule.

Os­man took a vir­tual drive of Bayou Shore, where Bates lives, us­ing Google Earth.

“Red flags are go­ing off all over the place,” he said. “There’s a cou­ple houses here that two feet of wa­ter should have thrown them over 50 per­cent … I don’t know how any­body at FEMA can’t drive down Bayou Shore Drive and say, ‘Whoa, what’s go­ing on here?’ I just looked at it for 30 sec­onds and I can see it’s a ma­jor prob­lem.”

Nev­er­the­less, a one-story, 1,400-square-foot house that had seven feet of wa­ter and was gut­ted to the studs was de­clared only 28 per­cent dam­aged.

The month­s­long process of as­sess­ing dam­age across Galve­ston Island wore on, and res­i­dents’ pa­tience — wait­ing for in­sur­ance pay­outs, de­bris re­moval, con­trac­tors and per­mits — wore thin. Amid this un­cer­tainty, all they wanted was a green light from the city to re­build, re­called El­iz­a­beth Bee­ton, a Galve­ston City Coun­cil mem­ber who wit­nessed this process in Ike’s af­ter­math. “There’s just tremen­dous pres­sure on lo­cal of­fi­cials to ac­com­mo­date their own con­stituents.”

“We were not equipped to sud­denly do per­mit­ting for an en­tire city. Our goal was to get peo­ple back into their houses.” Cather­ine Gor­man, as­sis­tant plan­ning di­rec­tor

City staff could have held the line, but that would have meant forc­ing ex­pen­sive el­e­va­tion projects on peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford it, ul­ti­mately kick­ing peo­ple out of town, and leav­ing homes to rot off the tax rolls. It can cost more than $150,000 to raise a 2,000-square-foot house, and stan­dard flood poli­cies cover only $30,000 of that.

So city of­fi­cials gave in, Bee­ton said.

Julia Hatcher’s house in Bayou Shore, val­ued at $62,000, took on six feet of wa­ter. The city de­clared only $25,000 in dam­ages.

“One of the in­spec­tors said to me some­thing to the ef­fect of, do you know how much it would cost if we rated ev­ery­body sub­stan­tially dam­aged?” she re­called. “They just ba­si­cally went around and low­balled dam­age for ev­ery­body so no­body would be sub­stan­tially dam­aged. Ev­ery­body (on the street) was sub­stan­tially dam­aged, in my opin­ion.”

She was one of few who el­e­vated her house any­way.

Over or un­der?

Cather­ine Gor­man, the as­sis­tant plan­ning di­rec­tor, said city staff bore tremen­dous stress. The first time she de­clared a house sub­stan­tially dam­aged, the owner was in the per­mit of­fice and had been wait­ing in a long line with other storm-rav­aged res­i­dents seek­ing re­build­ing per­mits. When the home­owner re­al­ized what the dec­la­ra­tion meant, she col­lapsed. In the fol­low­ing months, Gor­man and her staff would have thou­sands of those con­ver­sa­tions with weary res­i­dents.

“Po­lit­i­cally, the hard­est part of their job is do­ing sub­stan­tial dam­age de­ter­mi­na­tions,” said Bergin­nis, of the flood plain man­agers as­so­ci­a­tion. “I’ve been to places where com­mu­ni­ties are ready to re­peal flood plain reg­u­la­tions en­tirely” to spare res­i­dents from such trauma, he said.

Ar­riv­ing at a dam­age per­cent­age is a com­plex process in­volv­ing dozens of vari­ables and cal­cu­la­tions, of­ten per­formed by FEMA-pro­duced soft­ware. Lo­cal of­fi­cials are sup­posed to de­ter­mine the cost of bring­ing the build­ing back to its pre-flood con­di­tion us­ing la­bor and ma­te­ri­als at mar­ket prices, even if the home­owner elects to do less work.

Yet many of the vari­ables are open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, al­low­ing the end re­sult to be eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated. A FEMA hand­book gives lo­cal of­fi­cials four op­tions for de­ter­min­ing mar­ket value, one of which is sim­ply “es­ti­mates based on sound pro­fes­sional judg­ment made by the staff of the lo­cal build­ing depart­ment.” The onetwo combo of a high ap­praisal of prop­erty value, paired with ar­ti­fi­cially low con­trac­tors’ es­ti­mates, can guar­an­tee a dam­age dec­la­ra­tion be­low 50 per­cent.

In its as­sess­ments, Galve­ston sur­mised that none of the thou­sands of dam­aged island homes would cost more than $65 per square foot to re­pair.

The Galve­ston staff had to as­sess tens of thou­sands of dam­aged prop­er­ties via driv­ing tours of the island, then whit­tle those down to the 5,000 or so that were thought to be close to 50 per­cent dam­aged. FEMA helped, but final de­ter­mi­na­tions were up to a small staff, its mem­bers deal­ing with their own flooded homes. They heard ap­peals for months. Ques­tion­ing the work of a li­censed ap­praiser or con­trac­tor un­der such con­di­tions was out of the ques­tion, Gor­man said.

“We were not equipped to sud­denly do per­mit­ting for an en­tire city,” she said, adding, “Our goal was to get peo­ple back into their houses.”

Some­times, Bee­ton said, build­ing of­fi­cials out­right asked res­i­dents which way they wanted to go — over 50 per­cent or un­der, she said.

Bee­ton her­self urged city staff not to re­ject res­i­dents’ ap­peals of sub­stan­tial dam­age dec­la­ra­tions in in­stances where their neigh­bors had come in un­der 50 per­cent, she said. Her dis­trict in­cluded Fish Village, and the re­sult was that only a sin­gle home out of at least 300 was de­clared sub­stan­tially dam­aged.

Ike spared lit­tle of the island, flood­ing about 80 per­cent of homes. It was the worst Galve­ston dis­as­ter since the name­less hur­ri­cane of 1900 killed roughly 8,000 peo­ple, whose bod­ies had to be burned in fu­neral pyres on the beach.

Af­ter that storm, the town’s col­lec­tive lead­er­ship raised the height of the en­tire city by an aver­age of four feet, pump­ing in 1 mil­lion dump trucks worth of dredged sand and for­ti­fy­ing the island with a 17-foot sea­wall.

They also lifted 2,100 build­ings.

‘No ac­count­abil­ity’

FEMA con­cluded as early as 1989 that bad dam­age as­sess­ments oc­curred be­cause lo­cal of­fi­cials “did not un­der­stand the reg­u­la­tion, failed to rec­og­nize the struc­ture as sub­stan­tially dam­aged, or sim­ply ne­glected the re­spon­si­bil­ity of en­force­ment,” ac­cord­ing to an agency report.

“It’s still an enor­mous prob­lem,” said Con­rad, the flood plain man­agers con­sul­tant, who led one of few ex­am­i­na­tions of the is­sue when he was with the Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion in 1998. It’s been poorly stud­ied since.

Os­man, the Illi­nois flood plain man­ager, called it “the most im­por­tant com­po­nent of flood plain man­age­ment … where we see the most ef­fec­tive re­duc­tion in flood losses — when you ac­tu­ally get out and do those dam­age as­sess­ments and stand by them and en­force them.”

De­spite early warn­ings from in­side and out­side govern­ment, the Chron­i­cle’s anal­y­sis shows the per­cent­age of repet­i­tively flooded prop­er­ties with his­to­ries of sub­stan­tial dam­age hasn’t changed since Con­rad’s report 20 years ago — even as thou­sands more prop­er­ties have joined the re­peat loss list.

In­sur­ance pay­outs to prop­er­ties with past sub­stan­tial dam­age have roughly dou­bled in that time.

Even as Congress pre­pares to re­form the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram — or de­fer the re­forms for the sev­enth time since Septem­ber, only one of the pro­pos­als ad­dresses over­sight of sub­stan­tial dam­age — it re­quires train­ing of lo­cal of­fi­cials but pro­vides no new en­force­ment mea­sures. FEMA doesn’t track the is­sue, and nei­ther do most lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions. In many com­mu­ni­ties that par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram, only pa­per records of dam­age as­sess­ments ex­ist, even for re­cent floods, mak­ing data­bases like Galve­ston’s rare.

FEMA didn’t audit Galve­ston’s han­dling of the sub­stan­tial dam­age re­quire­ments in Hur­ri­cane Ike, even though the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram paid out more than $800 mil­lion in claims there since 1978.

The agency did, how­ever, audit the city’s flood plain man­age­ment pro­gram seven months be­fore Ike, find­ing only 20 de­fi­cien­cies mostly re­lated to in­di­vid­ual prop­er­ties. A FEMA of­fi­cial wrote to the city man­ager: “The city con­tin­ues to demon­strate that its flood plain pro­gram is con­form­ing to re­quire­ments and is very well man­aged.” It has not been audited since.

Its flood plain res­i­dents get 15 per­cent off in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums be­cause the city main­tains a Class 7 rat­ing from the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram for good per­for­mance.

‘No one’s se­ri­ous’

FEMA and its af­fil­i­ates at the state level can­not keep up with the more than 22,000 com­mu­ni­ties in the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram. Hous­ton, the most flood-prone me­trop­o­lis in the coun­try, has not had an audit since be­fore 2007. Yet it has among the best flood in­sur­ance pro­gram com­mu­nity rat­ings of large cities, a des­ig­na­tion that pro­vides res­i­dents with up to 25 per­cent off their flood in­sur­ance poli­cies.

Mi­ami hasn’t seen one in at least eight years. Only 23 per­cent of pro­gram com­mu­ni­ties have, a Reuters anal­y­sis found.

“No one’s re­ally se­ri­ous about pre­vent­ing repet­i­tive flood­ing,” Bee­ton, the coun­cil mem­ber, sur­mised. “If the fed­eral govern­ment were se­ri­ous about that, it would not leave it to lo­cal of­fi­cials to make the de­ci­sion about whether some­one can re­build or not — lo­cal of­fi­cials who are in ex­treme dis­tress.”

Un­der cur­rent law, lo­cal of­fi­cials don’t get re­im­bursed by FEMA for build­ing in­spec­tions af­ter a dis­as­ter, so they don’t ask for help or make tem­po­rary hires, Bergin­nis, di­rec­tor of the flood plain man­agers as­so­ci­a­tion said.

His group is lob­by­ing Congress for a mea­sure to change that.

FEMA has shifted much of the bur­den for au­dits onto the states, but fund­ing is in­con­sis­tent.

In 2017, FEMA gave the state’s flood in­sur­ance pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor, the Texas Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment Board, just $332,000 for the pro­gram that in­cludes au­dits. Five staff mem­bers are ded­i­cated to that pro­gram.

To audit Hous­ton un­der the guide­lines set out by FEMA, they would have to spend weeks just driv­ing the flood plain to look for vi­o­la­tions, plus more time re­view­ing thou­sands of build­ing per­mit files, board spokes­woman Kim­berly Leggett said.

Roy Wright, the out­go­ing flood in­sur­ance pro­gram ad­min­is­tra­tor, said the agency was con­sid­er­ing man­dat­ing more reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing of places such as Har­ris County with large num­bers of flood poli­cies, and spend­ing less time on ru­ral ar­eas with lower flood ex­po­sure. Those man­dates could be tied to fu­ture grants to the state co­or­di­nat­ing agen­cies.

Dam­age as­sess­ments are sel­dom pub­licly avail­able, ei­ther due to poor data man­age­ment or the use of pri­vacy laws to block their re­lease.

“It’s one of th­ese ar­eas where there’s vir­tu­ally no pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity,” said Rob Moore, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, which has is­sued sev­eral watch­dog re­ports on the flood in­sur­ance pro­gram. “I sus­pect it’s one of th­ese big prob­lems that no­body at FEMA re­ally wants to find out how ex­ten­sive it is.”

Wright said he no­ticed sub­stan­tial dam­age was a prob­lem af­ter floods in South Carolina in 2015 and Louisiana in 2016, largely be­cause of in­quiries from re­porters in the af­fected com­mu­ni­ties.

“When I start hear­ing the same types of ques­tions, that means I need to dive deeper in,” he said. “The ques­tions kept com­ing and frankly there weren’t enough an­swers.”

He or­dered a year­long re­view of pro­gram com­pli­ance is­sues, in­clud­ing sub­stan­tial dam­age. The agency has not re­leased a set of rec­om­men­da­tions that re­sulted from that re­view.

He had no in­for­ma­tion on Galve­ston’s prac­tices. FEMA of­fi­cials have mon­i­tored Hous­ton’s dam­age as­sess­ment pro­cesses since the storm hit, he said.

In the ab­sence of greater help from FEMA, some states have de­vel­oped a co­op­er­a­tive ap­proach.

Af­ter se­vere flood­ing in Wat­seka, Ill., in late Fe­bru­ary, a team of 18 flood plain of­fi­cials from around the state as­sem­bled at city hall in the town of 5,000 peo­ple, where the build­ing of­fi­cial would oth­er­wise have been over­whelmed.

In less than seven hours, they sur­veyed 676 build­ings and iden­ti­fied 109 that needed more de­tailed sub­stan­tial dam­age es­ti­mates.

They’d done this drill be­fore, dur­ing an­other bout of flood­ing in Wat­seka three years ear­lier. Many homes then were de­clared sub­stan­tially dam­aged and sub­se­quently el­e­vated.

None of them flooded this time.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Julia Hatcher, a Galve­ston at­tor­ney, is one of the few home­own­ers who raised her home af­ter be­ing in­un­dated by Hur­ri­cane Ike.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Lynda and David Bates re­built their Galve­ston home at ground level af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ike swamped it with 7 feet of wa­ter, but they were never told it should be el­e­vated or de­mol­ished. “We were in a hurry,” David Bates said.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Julia Hatcher’s raised home, far right, stands next to its non-el­e­vated neigh­bors on Camp­bell Lane in Galve­ston. Hatcher raised her home af­ter it, like all of those around it, filled with 6 feet of wa­ter dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Ike.

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