Flood insurance policies in Houston plunged before Harvey

Associated Press

Houston's population is growing quickly, but when Harvey hit last weekend there were far fewer homes and other properties in the area with flood insurance than just five years ago, according to an Associated Press investigation.

The sharp, 9 percent drop in coverage means many residents fleeing Harvey's floodwaters have no financial backup to fix up their homes and will have to draw on savings or go into debt — or perhaps be forced to sell.

A former head of the federal flood insurance program called the drops "unbelievable" and criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the program.

"When you start to see policies drop like this, FEMA should have done something about this," said Robert Hunter, who ran the program in the late '70s. He estimates that fewer than two of 10 homeowners with flood damage have flood insurance.

Houston's Harris County has 25,000 fewer flood-insured properties than it did in 2012, according to the AP's review of FEMA data.

In percentage terms, the drop was even more dramatic in certain sections of the county: In Pasadena, just southeast of Houston, policies were down nearly 20 percent. Baytown, east of Houston, saw a 22 percent drop. The trouble extended beyond Houston, too. Jefferson County, home to cities like Beaumont and Port Arthur, which Harvey hit Wednesday, saw a bigger drop. That county fell from 25,818 policies to 19,773 in the past five years, a 23 percent decrease.

The current head of the flood insurance program, Roy Wright, attributed much of the drop in the Houston area to Congress' decision in 2012 to raise premiums, and said there is a "true insurance gap" across the country: Only half the 10 million properties in the U.S. that he said need flood coverage have bought it.

He said he is working to close to gap but noted that the decision to keep or drop coverage largely lies with individuals.

"I can educate and make the product available, but ultimately this is a pocketbook decision made by each individual homeowner, and I imagine they have a lot of factors they take into effect," said Wright, director of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Experts say another reason for lack of coverage in the Houston area was that the last big storm, Tropical Storm Allison, was 16 years ago. As a result, people had stopped worrying and decided to use money they would have spent for insurance premiums on other items.

"Allison was a once-in-500-year flood," said Texas A&M University economist James P. Gaines. "We weren't supposed to have another one."

FEMA's director, Brock Long, told the AP on Wednesday that storm victims who have lost their homes and are uninsured could seek assistance through the Small Business Administration, which offers loans.

The average per year cost for premiums in Harris County rose from $514 in 2012 to $555 this year, an increase of 8 percent, according to FEMA data. Congress repealed its 2012 premium hikes in 2014.

Jesse Trubia, president of a metal fabrication company, decided to pass on flood insurance when he moved to his two-story home on the outskirts of Houston several years ago. That decision will now cost him up to $30,000, he estimated.

Up to one foot of water seeped into his home in Cypress, he judges from a neighbor's report, ruining furniture, plasterboard, paint, carpets and wooden flooring.

He said a real estate agent and title insurance company had given him the impression he did not need flood insurance, because his home wasn't in a flood plain.

"Of course, you have that gut-wrenching feeling now, but at the time I'm talking to people who live in the neighborhood 10 or 15 years, and they say they've never seen water in the street," he said by phone from a Dallas hotel, where he had fled with his wife and two children.

Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the insurance industry's Insurance Information Institute, said she was not surprised at the drop in flood policies in the Houston area. She said polling performed for her group showed that only 12 percent of American homeowners in flood-prone areas were insured against flooding in 2016, down from 14 percent in 2015.

"There's a naivety on the part of people. A lot of people think it's not going to happen to them," she said.

Several Houston-area homeowners and insurance experts also attributed the decreased coverage to tight family finances in recent years due to the drop in oil prices and the region's reliance on that industry.

"The price of oil has gone up and down like a yo-yo, and with those ups and downs come a lot of jobs lost over the years," said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the trade group Insurance Council of Texas. "A lot of it has to do with what comes first: flood insurance or food on the table."

In total, Harris County residents were paying premiums on nearly 250,000 flood insurance policies in June, down from almost 275,000 policies at the end of 2012. There were roughly 1.75 million housing units in Harris County, but that includes apartment and condominium buildings, making it an imperfect figure to try to calculate what overall percentage of families are covered by flood insurance.

The number of policies in Houston itself fell from 133,000 to 119,000, an 11 percent drop — roughly in line with the trend nationally. Over the same period, the number of flood policies across the country dropped 10 percent, to 4.9 million.

Jiles Daniels, a retired oil company manager, never wavered when he bought flood insurance on both his homes: one in Houston and another on an island near Cleveland, northeast of Houston. The cost is considerable: about $1,800 a year in premiums for the two houses combined.

But he thinks it's worth it: The lower level of his island house went about 4 feet under water, he estimates, though his city home had been spared so far. "I've been living here since the mid-'70s, and I've seen the floods," he said in a phone interview from an upper floor of his island house. "I don't care where I am: I'm getting flood insurance."

FEMA has been criticized for years for not doing more to get people to buy flood insurance. The agency underwrites the policies but farms out the task of pitching them to homeowners to private insurers. The idea was that the private sector would do a better job of getting people to sign up, but that does not appear to be the case.

A report last year by the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog office criticized FEMA for "not providing adequate oversight" of the private sector marketing efforts. It also slammed FEMA for leaving the federal flood insurance program at "risk for fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement."

Under current rules, most homeowners with mortgages living in high risk areas for flooding, called Special Flood Hazard Zones, must buy flood insurance.

Most of the Houston area falls outside those most vulnerable zones, and many homeowners who aren't forced to have coverage have decided to do without.

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, 65 percent of the land that flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was not in a designated flood plain. The county has since redrawn its flood risk maps several times, notably in 2007, with smaller changes in 2014 and then early this year.

One problem with the maps highlighted by Tropical Storm Harvey: They don't take into account the risk of flooding from overcapacity drainage sewers and ditches or from water flowing toward a sewer or bayou. More than half of the flooding in Harris County over the years has been due to such problems, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

"Nobody's buying flood insurance outside the federal flood risk areas, particularly where we're talking about storm water flooding," said Carolyn Kousky, an expert in natural disaster insurance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. She added that even people who figure they should have insurance just to be safe, usually put it off and then never get around to buying it.

For Ronnie Walsh, 45, flood insurance was out of the question. He was laid off from a factory job in June and even before that money was tight.

"That's just another bill I can't afford," he said.

On Monday, Walsh was evacuated from his east Houston home by rescuers in helicopters after water started seeping into the house. He and his two sons, ages 4 and 6, had just a few bags of belongings with them when they arrived at a downtown convention center. They spent the night on flattened boxes, wondering how much damage their house sustained.

He fears everything is gone.

"At a time like this you can't really worry about TVs, entertainment centers, things like that," Walsh said. "You just have to survive."

Condon and Sweet reported from New York, and Donn from Plymouth, Massachusetts. AP National Writer Matt Sedensky in Houston and staff writer Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed to this reporting.

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