New Coastal Homes Raise Flood Risks

Mike Sorohan msorohan@mba.org

August 06, 2019

An analysis by Climate Central, Princeton, N.J., and Zillow, Seattle, shows nearly 20,000 homes built in the past decade are at significant risk of chronic coastal flooding by 2050.

The report said more than 800,000 existing homes in coastal states will face significant flood risks by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked; by 2100, the number of at-risk homes jumps to 3.4 million, worth $1.75 trillion.

"Development in many of these places has outpaced development in safer locations," the report said.

Key findings:

--Connecticut is developing risk zones more than 3 times faster than safer locations;

--Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and Rhode Island are developing risk zones more than 2 times faster than safer locations;

--Maine, New Hampshire and South Carolina are developing risk zones faster than safer locations;

--New Jersey, Florida and North Carolina have allowed the most homes built in risk zones--more than 9,000 since 2010;

--24 cities, including New York; Tampa, Fla.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Galveston, Texas have allowed at least 100 homes built in risk zones since 2010.

The analysis that paired Zillow housing data with Climate Central sea-level rise expertise identifies the number of new homes, and homes overall, in low-lying coastal areas, projecting how many will become exposed to chronic ocean flooding over the coming decades, depending on the choices the world makes around greenhouse-gas pollution today. It expands on analysis done last year that showed some 386,000 current U.S. homes are likely to be at risk of regular annual flooding by 2050 because of sea-level rise from climate change, and that new homes are being built at striking rates in areas that face high risks of future flooding.

"The impact of climate change on the lives and pocketbooks of homeowners is closer than you think," said Skylar Olsen, Zillow director of economic research and outreach. "For home buyers over the next few years, the impact of climate change will be felt within the span of their 30-year mortgage."

Worldwide, the problem is expected to be much bigger. According to World Ocean Review, more than a billion people--most of them in Asia--live in low-lying coastal regions.

"Climate change is placing increasing pressure on coastal regions which are already seriously affected by intensive human activity," WOR said. "This raises the question of whether--or to what extent--these areas will retain their residential and economic value in the decades and centuries to come, or whether they may instead pose a threat to the human race."

WOR estimates more than 200 million people worldwide live along coastlines less than 15 feet above sea level. By the end of the 21st century this figure is estimated to increase to nearly 500 million.

In the U.S., efforts to minimize the impact of coastal flooding has been hampered by the desire of Americans to live along coasts; and outdated FEMA maps, some decades old, that have left thousands of homeowners who should have flood insurance with none.

My Flood Risk, an affiliate of National Flood Insurance LLC, Melbourne, Fla., said Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida panhandle in October 2018, showed the impact of those outdated FEMA maps. In Mexico Beach, Fla., for example, where Michael made landfall, 70 percent of the community's homes and businesses were destroyed. Because the FEMA maps for that area hadn't been updated in more than 10 years--FEMA categorized the area as "Flood Zone X," meaning low-to-moderate flood risk--80 percent of those structures were uninsured.

"When it comes to uninsured flood victims in the United States, Florida's Panhandle ranks the highest," Jennifer Scherff, marketing project manager for My Flood Risk, told the Tallahassee Democrat.

In a statement, FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow said the agency recommends flood insurance coverage, even if it is not required by law or a financial lender for a mortgage, "as the best protection against the unpredictable and significant financial losses a flooding event can cause."

The issue also has the attention of Congress. At least two bills are working their way through the House and Senate that would provide long-term reauthorization to the National Flood Insurance Program, which has suffered frequent funding lapses over the past several years each time the program sunsets.

Last month, the House Financial Services Committee approved a bill, championed by Committee Chair Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Ranking Member Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., that would reauthorize the NFIP for five years. A competing bill, introduced last month by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Bill Cassidy, R-La., and John Kennedy, R-La., would also reauthorize NFIP for five years but would cap annual premium increases at 9 percent.

Meanwhile, the Zillow/Climate Central report noted Florida would have the most homes in the zone at risk from sea-level rise and 10-year floods by 2100 (1.58 million), followed by New Jersey (282,354), Virginia (167,090), Louisiana (157,050) and California (143,217)--assuming levees and other infrastructure defenses hold, and emissions continue unchecked. What's more, 24 cities including New York, Tampa and Virginia Beach have built at least 100 homes in that risk zone since 2009.

"In many states, building on land projected by 2050 to face chronic flood risks has outpaced development in safer places," said Benjamin Strauss, CEO and chief scientist of Climate Central. "Failure to control climate pollution will lead to faster-rising seas and bigger coastal risk zones, but building a cleaner-running economy can still reduce these consequences."

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