Times Record: A bluff over the ocean (Feb. 3, 2014)

Hooray! The U.S. Senate wants to make decisions based on facts and science! So Thursday’s vote to delay sharp increases in flood insurance for coastal property owners seems sensible and should cheer many readers.

If only.

The National Flood Insurance Program is $24 billion in debt, stung by damage to overbuilt coasts from Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, Isaac and Sandy. Congress responded in 2012 by passing the Biggert-Waters Act, ending longstanding federal subsidies that help private individuals in flood-prone coastal areas buy flood insurance.

The valid, bipartisan aim of Biggert-Waters was to shift flood risk from taxpayers to the private market, an idea backed by fiscal conservatives and environmentalists. The risk of building near the water is only getting worse, and there’s a national interest — especially if taxpayers are bankrolling the system — in keeping people from places they could be killed or harmed by predictable natural disasters.

Both of Maine’s U.S. senators voted with a large majority Thursday to delay Biggert-Waters and to keep those federal flood insurance subsidies humming. With her vote, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a co-sponsor, effectively said it’s OK for the public to assume the risks of homeowners with even the biggest flood risks — a strange position for a “fiscal conservative.”

Public money to back private losses? That should sound familiar to anyone who followed the near-collapse of the U.S. banking industry in 2008 and its aftermath.

Today’s politics clamors for financial austerity — cuts to food stamps, Head Start, military benefits, Meals on Wheels. Do Maine’s U.S. senators think paying to rebuild seaside homes ranks higher on the national agenda?

U.S. Sen. Angus King said FEMA flood maps must be scientifically accurate, and he made sure local communities are eligible for reimbursement if they successfully appeal bad maps — sort of a legal fund to battle the federal government.

King also wants FEMA to engage and collaborate with communities on better, more localized data to produce more precise maps and more accurate premiums. Reasonable, but if the science finds FEMA maps actually understate the risk, that bluff will be called.

The Senate’s vote on Waters-Biggert was less about science and more about protecting, or at least prolonging, public handouts to private interests.

We don’t need federal flood insurance for the same reason the private market doesn’t offer it: It’s a losing proposition. It’s also poor fiscal and environmental policy to continue paying for something you know incentivizes risky behavior and endangers large swaths of the populace.

New flood maps and the increased cost of insurance that comes with them is a no-win proposition.

If taxpayers keep shelling out to keep shorefront (and high tax paying) property owners where they are, it will cost escalating billions of dollars as the sea and claims rise. If they don’t, we may see a kind of mass migration from the coast.

It’s odd: The concept of applying science to policy didn’t seem to get the same reception when it came to the underlying problem of global warming. So, we ask the crusaders for science in the U.S. Senate: Now that we’re on the run, what are you doing with the reams of data that show a warmer climate is destroying the Maine coast?

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