In Storm-Tossed Houston Area, Most Homeowners Lack Flood Insurance | KUOW News and Information

In Storm-Tossed Houston Area, Most Homeowners Lack Flood Insurance

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 31, 2017 8:48 am

A friend sent a photo to Jaime Botello's phone Wednesday that confirmed his fears: The house where his family has lived for 30 years is completely flooded.

"All the way to the top," he says.

And like most people in the Houston area, Botello, a welder who was at a shelter with his wife on Wednesday, doesn't have flood insurance. He says he can't afford it.

Texas officials say some 49,000 homes have been damaged by the massive flooding that has come in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The vast majority of the owners don't have flood insurance.

"It's a terrible disaster just on the facts you see when you look at TV or the pictures," says Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America, a former Texas insurance commissioner. "But it's also a terrible potential second disaster because so many of the people are not going to be insured."

Most insurance policies don't cover flooding damage. To obtain it, homeowners go through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But even though the premiums are effectively subsidized by the government, most people choose not to take out flood insurance, especially those who live in areas not generally considered flood-prone. In fact, the Associated Press reported recently that fewer than 20 percent of Houston homeowners have flood insurance — less than five years ago, despite the city's rapid population growth.

Those who lack insurance have a few options. The government offers low-interest loans to businesses and homes damaged by the storm. "But it's still a loan. You have your old mortgage to pay and now you have a new loan to pay off," Hunter notes.

The government also provides grants to homeowners to make their homes habitable again, but the grants are not large.

"Disaster aid from the federal government is much more limited than I think [people] realize," says Carolyn Kousky, director of policy research and engagement at the Wharton Risk Center. President Trump has authorized FEMA to make grants to homeowners under what is called the Individual Assistance Program, she says.

Such grants are capped at $30,000.

"But the average amount these grants pay out historically is more like $5,000. And the reason it's so low is that they're really just to make your home safe and habitable again. They're not to bring your home back to pre-disaster conditions.

"To bring them back to pre-disaster conditions, you really need to have insurance, and I think that message may not be getting out there effectively before storms," she says.

In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has block grants for communities damaged by Harvey, although it can take a long time to process them.

And Congress is widely expected to approve billions of dollars in additional aid.

"What's going on is so unprecedented and so terrible and horrible that Congress is probably going to be very generous in how they do disaster relief," Hunter says.

But it may be years before the money reaches its targets.

"It can take months and even years in some cases between when it's authorized by Congress and when a person actually sees a check from it," says Kousky.

She says FEMA has taken steps to reform its process for getting aid to victims of natural disasters, after its much-criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

"I guess it remains to be seen how effective those are, but there's been a lot of changes to the claims-handling process, so hopefully it will go better this time," she says.

In addition, a new Texas law goes into effect on Sept. 1 that will make it harder for people to sue insurance companies that take too long to pay claims.

State officials say the new law shouldn't affect people whose homes were damaged by Harvey, but it's already adding to the confusion a lot of people feel as they begin to rebuild their lives.

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Texas officials say flooding from Harvey has damaged some 49,000 homes. That's not a final count. Most of those homeowners never got flood insurance and face a long road to recovery. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Once they've made their way through flooded streets and found shelter somewhere, a lot of people in the Houston area will have to begin to assess how much their homes have been damaged. Robert Hunter is a former Texas insurance commissioner.

ROBERT HUNTER: It's a terrible disaster just on the facts you see when you look at TV or the pictures. But it's also a terrible potential second disaster because so many people are not going to be insured. And what's going to happen probably for some people is they'll just walk away from the homes.

ZARROLI: The federal government offers flood insurance, but fewer than 20 percent of people in the Houston area take it, and so they're not covered for the kind of damage that Harvey has caused. Carolyn Kousky is with the Wharton Risk Management Decision Processes Center.

CAROLYN KOUSKY: Standard homeowners policies will not cover damage from flooding. And given that this is very much a flood event, that's going to be problematic for lots of people.

ZARROLI: There are people such as Jaime Botello, a welder who was at a shelter in North Houston with his wife today. He says his house is covered for fire and other hazards but not flooding.

JAIME BOTELLO: I don't have the insurance for the flood. I can't afford a thousand dollars a month.

ZARROLI: Now he says floodwaters have engulfed the house he's lived in for 30 years.

BOTELLO: My neighbors sent me a picture over my phone. And my house - it just got over-flooded all the way to the top.

ZARROLI: For people without flood insurance, there are a few options. Bob Hunter says they can apply for federal loans to rebuild their homes.

HUNTER: You end up with a low-interest loan. It may be as low as zero percent interest, but it's still a loan, and you have your old mortgage to pay. And now you've got a new loan to pay off.

ZARROLI: The federal government also provides direct grants to repair homes that are damaged by the flooding. They don't have to be paid back, but recipients only get enough money to make their homes habitable, not to repair them altogether. And that's typically not all that much money. There may be more money coming in as well. Hunter says Congress is likely to allocate many billions of dollars for storm relief.

HUNTER: What's going on is so unprecedented and so terrible and horrible that Congress is probably going to be very generous in how they do disaster relief.

ZARROLI: Some of the money is likely to go directly to cities and towns hit by the storm in the form of block grants. But it typically takes a long time for Congress to design and implement programs to dole out the money, says Carolyn Kousky.

KOUSKY: That can take months or even years in some cases between when it's authorized by Congress and when a person actually sees a check from it.

ZARROLI: Kousky says some of the money allocated by Congress for Katrina recovery was still being handed out a decade after the storm hit. For Texas residents, there's another wrinkle as well. A new law goes into effect on September 1 that makes it harder for people to sue insurance companies that take too long to pay claims. Again, Bob Hunter...

HUNTER: And you can still file a claim, but it's much more difficult and much less likely that you have a lawyer that wants to do it because of the risk of not getting paid.

ZARROLI: State officials say the law shouldn't affect people whose homes were damaged by Harvey. But the new law is already adding to the confusion a lot of people feel as they begin to rebuild their lives. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.