Floods. They are clearly catastrophic, traumatic events,
although they have also been responsible
for one of the most memorable clips
in the history of broadcast news.
Well, obviously we're getting a nice break from the rain,
but not the flooding.
-This is essentially now... - (AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
...a part of the Passaic River in this neighborhood.
Fuck James Cameron and fuck Titanic,
because that is now officially
the greatest boat disaster ever captured on film.
Now, floods were everywhere this summer.
Think of them as the "Despacito" of natural disasters.
and absolutely no fault of the Puerto Rican government.
And floods are always threatening.
Ninety percent of all natural disasters in the U.S.
involve a flood.
Which is, I assume, the reason that FEMA's website
once referred to flooding as
"America's number-one natural hazard,
Which is a pretty weird tone to take
when describing something horrible.
It's like saying, "Boils: America's number-one
Or "Parks: America's number-one place to die unnoticed!"
And floods are only going to get worse
due to climate change.
And I know that there are people who will dispute that,
and we just don't have time tonight
to litigate whether extreme-weather events
are exacerbated by climate change.
So for now, let's just say...
(DRAMATIC MALE VOICE OVER)
-Yeah. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
They just definitely are. I mean...
-Sure, sure... -(AUDIENCE CHEERING)
...it is-- It is a complicated issue,
and we may not have definitive proof
until the late 1980s.
But-- But, while floods are often referred to
as "natural disasters,"
the truth is the damage they do is often to some extent
within our control.
Because we have made certain decisions
that put and keep people and property
in the path of flooding.
And that is what this story is about.
And before we go any further,
let's acknowledge that people live near water
for all sorts of reasons.
For some, it's where their families have lived
for generations, or a necessity for the work that they do.
And for others, it's a luxury.
And living next to the water is undoubtedly attractive,
despite the risks, like flooding,
or stepping on pointy seashells,
or mistakenly giving a Tostito to a seagull
without realizing that that means
you will now spend the rest of your life haunted
by a Tostito-addicted seagull.
The point is, whatever the reason
-to live by the water... -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
-(SEAGULL SQUAWKING) -many do-- Oh, for fuck's sake!
You've got to be kidding! I don't have any Tostitos!
I've been telling you that for six years!
Look, no Tostitos!
No Tostitos! Get out of here.
Get out of here, you flying beach rat.
-(AUDIENCE APPLAUDS) -Sorry.
The point is,
the dangers of waterfront living are real.
But many people, like this man,
who lives on the water in Tampa Bay,
feel the benefits outweigh the risks.
REPORTER: Mark knows that life here is tenuous.
But he doesn't dwell on it.
Every morning when I walk out to get the paper,
I see dolphins frolicking in the bayou,
and Roseate spoonbills
walking around the edge of the bayou, so...
it tends to make you forget about all those sorts of things.
Sure, I can imagine that seeing a Roseate spoonbill
would take your mind off things,
because you're spending your whole day
trying to figure out how a flamingo
could have gotten its stupid bird face
stuck into a panini press.
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -I'm just saying,
even people who like birds don't like this bird.
The Audubon society,
an organization whose entire purpose
is to champion birds, says they are, quote,
"Gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close."
Which is like the American Kennel Club saying,
"We celebrate all dogs and honor them as man's best friend,
but the Dandy Dinmont has a trash personality,
and looks like a scotty fucked Phil Spector.
And look, look...
If you are literally overlooking a bayou like that guy
you are probably aware that flooding is a risk.
But not every flood-prone area is directly along the coast,
and sometimes aggressive development
can exacerbate the risk of flooding,
even considerably inland.
Just look at Houston,
which was recently rocked by Harvey.
REPORTER 2: The metro area's development has exploded.
One study found the Houston area
has added 25 percent more pavement over 15 years,
replacing soil-rich wetlands that could absorb water
with concrete-covered suburbia.
Exactly, and that made Harvey's damage significantly worse.
Concrete isn't good at absorbing water.
That is why people don't dry off at the beach
by rolling around in the parking lot.
But it's not just global warming or unchecked growth
that have put more people in risky, flood-prone areas.
It's also the fact that
it's frequently only possible for people to take that risk
because they have flood insurance.
Just look at Buying the Beach.
It's a House Hunters type show
for people who want to live near the water. And one episode
featured two brothers named Mitch and Daniel
arguing over a particular beach house
which led to this exchange...
What do you think about the island house, Mitch?
MITCH: Well, I think there was a lot of good and a lot of bad on it.
Right off those steps into the beach, can't be beat.
DANIEL: We are really close to the water.
That's just another thing that's got me concerned.
Well, that's what insurance is for.
"That's what insurance is for."
That may be the most reckless statement
ever said on a boat.
And I'm very much including,
"I can definitely make this shot work."
And, "Hey! Let's feed these gulls some Tostitos."
-(SEAGULL SQUAWKING) -I don't have any!
All I did was said the word. Get out of here!
No Tostitos! No Tostitos!
But Mitch-- No Tostitos!
But-- But Mitch... Mitch isn't wrong.
That if they bought that house, they could get flood insurance
and surprisingly cheaply.
And it's worth taking some time to understand why
that is the case, because
unlike other forms of homeowner's insurance,
flood protection is actually underwritten by the government,
through the NFIP,
or National Flood Insurance Program.
It started nearly 50 years ago, after historic floods
wiped out many people's homes in the 1960s,
and the government back then realized
that there was a real problem.
Insurance companies wouldn't cover floods
at an affordable cost, because it was too risky,
so because of that, the government was spending
way too much on disaster relief,
so they stepped in, and created the NFIP,
which offered significantly discounted insurance
to encourage people to buy it, and that sounds great,
but crucially, the aim at the time was not
that people would be staying in at-risk homes permanently,
as the program's current administrator explains.
They presumed that if we told
people they were at risk, they would move.
They presumed that over the life of the program,
those discounts wouldn't need to be continued,
and they presumed they wouldn't need to be continued because
once people knew they had the risk,
they would move out.
That has not proven true.
No, but of course it hasn't, because that's not how
-people work. -(AUDIENCE CHUCKLING)
We will gladly accept huge risks to our personal safety
for the sake of a discount, that was the entire premise
behind the McDonald's dollar menu.
A-- and that is just one of the many flaws
with how this well-intentioned program was designed,
because everything about it from who participates
to where the money goes,
to the incentives it creates, needs fixing.
And let's start with the fact that eligibility for the program
is determined through flood plain maps.
You are required to buy flood insurance
if you have a federally-backed mortgage
and FEMA's maps show that you live in a risky area.
Unfortunately, the mandate has been poorly enforced,
meaning that lots of people don't buy insurance who should.
And the maps themselves can be both out of date
and wildly inaccurate.
In fact, just days before Harvey struck,
a study of Houston area flood maps
was published and the results were alarming.
REPORTER 3: Over the course of a decade,
researchers at Rice University and Texas A&M Galveston
studied one section of southeast Harris County.
They found FEMA's flood plain maps
missed about 75 percent of the damages from the storms--
Seventy-five percent. At that point, you might as well
predict floods by having blindfolded six-year-olds
pin little cardboard puddles onto city maps
at birthday parties.
But even if all the maps were perfect,
there would be another flaw with the NFIP,
which is how it's administered.
You see, typically the government
doesn't directly insure you.
Instead, it pays private insurance companies
a fee for every policy they sell.
But not just that.
The federal government is then responsible
for covering any losses,
which is a pretty fucking sweet deal
for those companies.
They take none of the risk, and yet they get
all the rewards, but it gets even worse,
because they also get paid for each claim they handle.
And when Frontline crunched some of the numbers,
and presented them to a former head of the program,
they found something shocking.
REPORTER 4: There was one number that really jumped out.
With all the claims in the wake of Sandy,
the profits were more than $400 million.
Because they're handling a lot of claims that year
and they get-- make a lot of money when they handle claims.
When a big storm hits then, they make more money.
Yeah, at the very time you need them to make less money
if anything, because-- because of-- the burden
is gonna be borne by the taxpayers,
they make a killing.
For insurance companies, the bigger the disaster,
the more they stand to profit.
And that is a business model not usually seen
outside of Nicholas Cage's career.
(STAMMERS) And while the insurance industry
may dispute exactly how much profit they make,
the fact remains that the government and the taxpayer
are definitely the ones eating the losses,
which is one of the reasons why
even before these latest hurricanes,
the program was $25 billion in debt,
and there are not enough Roseate spoonbills in the world
to take your mind off that, and just to be clear,
there are exactly enough Roseate spoonbills in the world.
I-- I'm just saying,
do we all really need more of this?
"Hey kids, come see!
The dirty pink dinosaur is noisily devouring its young!"
And look, there is a good argument to make
that helping people stay in their homes after a disaster
is what government is for.
But remember, a big chunk of that money
is just going to the insurance companies
and another shockingly big chunk of that money
goes to very few homes.
For instance, along the Gulf Coast
in Florida, just one percent of properties covered
by the NFIP have accounted for a quarter of flood claims.
These are called... (STAMMERS)
...so-called "Repetitive-loss properties."
Now, they are homes that can flood over and over
and over again, getting payments each and every time.
And some of them are costing us a fortune.
REPORTER 5: Just recently, an article in The Washington Post
highlighted a home in Pointe Coupee Parish
that has flooded 40 times.
While the house is valued at just $56,000,
the NFIP has doled out nearly $430,000
to cover flood claims.
-So, that is just stupid. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
Because if nothing else, if your house floods 40 times,
Mother Nature is sending you a pretty clear message,
and that message is, "Hey, would you mind leaving?
Some weird fish would like to fuck in here now."
And some parts of the country
have particularly extreme examples of this.
Now, you remember Mitch and Daniel?
The pastel deathtrap that they were looking at
is on a place called Dauphin Island,
where over the past two decades, homeowners have paid
just $9.3 million in premiums into the NFIP,
but they've received $72.2 million in payments
for their damaged homes.
It is so bad that the island got written up by Bloomberg
under the headline, "Love of Coastal Living
is Draining U.S. Disaster Funds."
And at first glance, we thought, "Hold on.
Isn't that the exact same eyesore
on stilts that Mitch and Daniel almost bought?"
Well, the good news is, it's actually not.
The bad news is,
it's literally the house next door
and it was also featured on a different episode
of Buying the Beach.
WOMAN: It's right in the water.
It wasn't close to the beach, it was in the ocean.
The waves are just... right here.
(EXHALES) It's literally in the ocean.
This is insane.
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -Yeah, it is insane, but what's even crazier is
at the end of the episode,
-they decided to buy the house! -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
But even if you were able to overlook
the repetitive loss properties, which you shouldn't,
there is another issue, and that is that nearly one
out of every five homes covered under the NFIP
is a second home.
And because the program isn't means tested,
the benefits frequently go to some wealthy individual's
One such property belonged to John Stossel,
a Fox News personality,
and partially hydrogenated Tom Selleck.
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -And-- and I'll let Stossel,
who really answers the question "What if Freddie Mercury had
quit singing to become an assistant floor manager
-at Men's Warehouse?" I'll-- -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
I'll let him tell you all about it,
'cause even he knew it was ridiculous.
JOHN STOSSEL: Years ago, I built this beach house.
That's younger me, there.
The house was on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean,
a risky place to build, but I built anyway.
'Cause a federal program guaranteed my investment.
Eventually, a storm swept away my first floor,
but I didn't lose a penny.
Thanks. I never invited you there,
but you paid for my new first floor.
Okay, so now Stossel is clearly just baiting people,
because under no circumstances does
anyone want to be funding the reconstruction
of the world's smuggest man's rickety sea prison.
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -And there is lots
to be confused about there, not-- not least of which,
that photo of Stossel posing shirtless
in skin-tight white swim trunks from hundreds of feet away.
-Who took that photo? -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
It can't be another human who wanted it.
So, here's my guess.
I think that he put a camera on a long delay timer,
then sprinted for a full 45 seconds
back to the deck of his house,
whispering "hurry, hurry, hurry!"
to himself the entire time, and got in position
just in time for that photo to happen.
That is the only scientifically possible explanation.
We debated this the entire fucking week
and it's the only scenario that we could all agree on.
-(AUDIENCE CHEERING) -And look-- look.
Here's the-- here's the thing.
If... If you choose to build something in a risky place
like John Stossel's salt-battered,
-bottom's-only beach mistake, -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
you should absolutely be allowed to do that,
but you shouldn't expect the government
to repeatedly help you rebuild when things inevitably go wrong.
However, the vast majority, the vast majority here
of NFIP beneficiaries are not wealthy,
or second homeowners.
They often really need this program and cannot afford
for it to go under.
And, for those stuck in repetitive loss properties,
it is easy for anyone to just say, "They should move,
they should just move."
But, it's much more difficult than that
as this Kentucky woman,
whose home has flooded repeatedly, will tell you.
We couldn't sell our house.
Who would want to buy a house that's had this many
repetitive floods in it?
Who would want to buy a house?
We have neighbors that have had their houses up for sale
for two and three years
and haven't even had anyone come and view the house.
We need a buy out from FEMA or from whoever it is that
is responsible for this.
Right, and her decision to try and leave that home
could not have been easy because
you don't want to throw out the baby with the floodwater.
But, at a certain point, the responsible thing to do
is to get a better, more water-resistant baby.
Which is, incidentally, also the title of Britain's
best-selling book on teaching children to swim.
Now, unfortunately, our buy-out programs are hugely
underfunded and prohibitively slow.
It can take years for buy-outs to get approved,
by which point, homeowner's have probably had to
rebuild their house at the government's expense
and it may have already flooded again.
So, essentially, a government program
that was supposed to help people in flooded homes
is sometimes trapping them inside them indefinitely.
And trapping people in structurally-unsound homes
isn't what the government is for,
it's what buying the beach is for.
No, there just has to be a better way here,
and there are some key things that we can do
to improve this program.
We can do things like means-test it
and eventually get rid of discounts for second homes
and gradually increase the insurance rates
on some properties so that they reflect actual risk.
Unfortunately, the last time that Congress tried
a major reform of the NFIP
with the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012,
the result was that many people's rates skyrocketed
overnight and politicians were so spooked by angry constituents
they significantly scaled back many of the reforms.
And, I'm not saying that this will ever be politically easy.
Because even if you do properly fund and streamline
a buy-out scheme, there are still going to be cases
where people just want to stay put.
Right here in New York, there is a low-line community
called "Broad Channel," where the streets can flood
twice a month.
Its residents fought against those rate increases
a few years ago and many of them have no interest in leaving.
No, the neighborhood's too great then.
Listen, my whole house got destroyed by Sandy and I--
you know, I redid my whole house.
I-- You know, people were like, "You're crazy, you should move."
I said, "Absolutely not."
But, you're standing in water right now.
Maybe the people telling you to move were saying,
"At the very least, can you move up five inches to dry land?"
But the hard truth here is even expensive interventions
are likely to only buy that community a little more time
and people in Broad Channel will eventually be leaving,
whether it's by moving truck or by boat
because environmental conditions are going to get worse.
Heavy downpours have increased in the last 50 years
and sea levels have been climbing steadily
and I'm not saying that that is because of climate change
(DRAMATIC MALE VOICE OVER)
It just is. It just-- It just is. Precisely.
The NFIP is actually due for re-authorization this December
and I would argue that it is time to take another shot at
serious thoughtful reform because without it
we have an unstable, unsustainable program
that is indirectly harming some of the people
that it was designed to help and...
(STAMMERING) I do-- I don't have any--
-I've told you the last time-- -John, John, John! Relax!
I'm not here for Tostitos.
Hold on. You-- You-- You can talk?
Of course. Seagulls can talk.
We just choose to listen most of the time.
-♪ (PIANO PLAYS SOFTLY) ♪ -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
Oh, well, that's-- That's actually very nice.
And, I heard what you were saying about flooding
-and you are right. -Mm-hmm.
I've seen it. I'm a seagull.
-Yeah. -Some people in high-risk areas
will need to move
and we should give 'em the help that they can do that with.
-Right. Okay. -Because...
While leavin' your home is hard, being forced out when it's
uninhabitable is ten times harder.
-Right. -And, after all,
your home isn't just walls and a roof,
it's where the people you love are.
Aw! Seagull, I gotta say that was absolutely beautiful.
Yeah, not bad for a "flying beach rat."
-Aw, no, no, no, no, no, don't-- -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
Don't talk like that about yourself. No, don't, don't.
It's okay. I know it's true. You know it's true.
Everybody watchin' knows it's true.
Hey, I eat French fries out of the garbage.
Yeah, you're right. You make a good point.
You're absolutely disgusting.
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -But-- But you know what?
I am truly sorry for misjudging your motives in coming here.
That's okay, Johnny. Uh, just one more thing...
You have any Tostitos?
Fuck you! No! I do not have any Tostitos!
They're all gone. Get the fuck outta here.
-Get outta here! -(AUDIENCE CHEERING, APPLAUDING)