OP-ED: Reforming flood program ensures government is more responsive to the people it serves

WASHINGTON, D.C. –- (RealEstateRama) — Nearly five years ago, Superstorm Sandy devastated the Jersey shore and forever changed its landscape. Ocean County — my home — was the epicenter of the storm, and half of all New Jersey Sandy flood claims happened here. An estimated 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, resulting in over $30 billion in losses.

Worse, thousands of those families are still not back in their homes, and countless businesses were forced to shutter for good. Lack of leadership from politicians and mismanagement and malfeasance by bureaucrats at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are largely to blame. The terrible response to this storm coupled with an opportunity to reauthorize and reform the National Flood Insurance Program are two big reasons why I sought a seat on the House Financial Services Committee during this Congress.

My wife, Debbie, and I saw the suffering that our neighbors went through firsthand. While I wasn’t in Congress at the time, we endeavored to help our community by creating the St. Peter’s Sandy Relief Fund through our church and opened our own home to local families who lost theirs, allowing them to continue living and working locally.

After joining the House Financial Services Committee, I was confronted with the harsh reality that many of my non-coastal colleagues wanted to gut the insurance program and put it on the path to extinction. They’ve called the program “unfair,” “unneeded” and a “middle-income entitlement.” With all due respect, they could not be more wrong.
No, the NFIP is not perfect, but our goal should be reforming the program so it works better, not getting rid of it entirely and leaving people in coastal communities exposed. A lapse in the program would have devastating consequences for Ocean County homeowners and the local economy, effectively shutting down the local housing market and negatively impacting homebuilders, real estate agents, community banks and taxpaying consumers. My goal has been to achieve a long-term reauthorization and reform the program so it serves flood-exposed citizens and coastal communities better.

Over the past week, the House Financial Services Committee worked on the final NFIP reform bill that will be voted on by the entire House of Representatives. During this process, I fought to ensure that every coastal resident and business has access to the flood program at affordable rates, to increase investment in mitigation and to instill more accountability at FEMA. I was able to work with my colleagues and shape this legislation to include numerous concessions that will help Jersey shore residents, such as:

— Fully reauthorizing the program for five years.

— Guaranteeing that all flood-exposed properties in participating communities, including new construction, are able to participate in the program. I amended the bill to guarantee this since the original bill excluded new construction in special flood-hazard areas.

— Limiting how high premiums can increase for homes that were built before flood maps were produced by the federal government. I will continue working to lower rates even further before a floor vote.

— Removing a harmful provision that would have punished homeowners who had suffered two losses of $1,000 by slapping them with a $5,000 deductible. This deductible will now apply only to severe and extreme repetitive loss properties.

— Prohibiting FEMA from hiring disbarred attorneys, a practice that was rampant during the Sandy claims review process. People who are not qualified to practice law should not be hired to settle claims.
— Doubling the Increased Cost of Compliance coverage from $30,000 to $60,000 to help residents elevate their homes and engage other strategies to protect against future flood risk. Importantly, the bill also authorizes the director to pay ICC coverage amounts in advance of a loss, if mitigation efforts are likely to prevent future covered losses.

— Ensuring that FEMA can’t wantonly punish communities that are acting in good faith with federal funding they receive to mitigate flood risk. Without this provision, FEMA could impose unfunded mandates on local mayors of flood-exposed communities.

As I have explained to my colleagues in Congress and on the Financial Services Committee, the people whose lives were turned upside down by Sandy aren’t millionaires and billionaires. To the contrary, my constituents living in towns like Toms River, Berkeley, Brick and Seaside Heights are working-class people whose modest homes (most well under 1,000 square feet in size) were handed down by their parents or grandparents, who built them in the 1960s. They pay their taxes and expect their government to be there when a natural disaster strikes.

In closing, we can and should make government smaller, smarter and more efficient, but that doesn’t mean making it less compassionate. In fact, if we do NFIP reform the right way, we can ensure that the government is more responsive to the people it serves. If making that a reality means taking on my own party, then so be it.

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