When Rising Seas Transform Risk into Certainty
When Elisa Staton found a small house a block from the water in Larchmont-Edgewater in 2005, she was thinking of the neighborhood’s grand trees and Tudor-style houses, of the elementary school she hoped to send her kids to, once she had them. She wasn’t thinking much about flooding, though she knew the house was in a hundred-year flood zone, which meant that to get a federally backed mortgage, she was required to pay for flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (N.F.I.P.), a government-subsidized system overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The insurance was reasonable, and there was no record of the house ever being flooded before. She bought it for $320,000.
A “hundred-year flood” sounds like a factor of time, as if the land were expected to flood only once every 100 years, but what it’s really meant to express is risk — the land has a 1 percent chance of flooding each year. As waters rise, though, flooding in low-lying places without sea walls, like Larchmont-Edgewater, will become more and more common until the presence of water is less about chance and more about certainty. And few insurers are willing to bet against a certainty.
Ten years later, Staton’s rec room had been flooded twice, and her insurance premiums, like those of many coastal property owners, had skyrocketed. She was seeing the effects not only of those local floods but also of rising waters elsewhere. As storm damage becomes more costly, it has left the N.F.I.P. tens of billions of dollars in debt and federal officials scrambling to bridge the divide between the rapidly growing expense of insuring these properties and the comparatively tiny, taxpayer-subsidized premiums that support it.
In 2012 and 2014, Congress responded to the N.F.I.P.’s troubles with bills known, thanks to the accidental aptness of their sponsors’ names, as Biggert-Waters and Grimm-Waters. The first law cut subsidies and phased out grandfathered rates so that premiums would start to reflect the true risk that properties like Staton’s face — reaching what the N.F.I.P. calls “actuarial soundness.” The second tried to slow the rate of those increases when it became clear how hard they would hit property owners.
Insurance serves as a bulwark, both financial and mental, against the fact that we live in a fundamentally uncertain and dangerous world. “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past,” the financial historian Peter L. Bernstein wrote in his 1996 book, “Against the Gods,” “is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” Calamity can come for us all, but by bundling enough separate peril together we manage to form a general stability, a collective hedge against helplessness. As climate insecurity mounts, though, that math will get harder.
Read the full article at The New York Times.