Economic Development:

Overview of GAO's Past Work on the National Flood Insurance Program

GAO-14-297R: Published: Apr 9, 2014. Publicly Released: May 9, 2014.

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Daniel Garcia-Diaz
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What GAO Found

Over the past 11 years, GAO has identified a variety of challenges facing the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and has made numerous recommendations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve its administration of the program. FEMA has generally agreed with GAO's recommendations and has taken steps to address them. However, FEMA has not fully addressed all of the issues we have reported on and will need to address provisions in both the Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (Biggert-Waters Act) and the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (2014 Act) that affect many aspects of NFIP, including its finances, rate setting, and participation. Among other things, GAO found the following:

  • Finances. As of December 31, 2013, FEMA owed the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) $24 billion--primarily to pay claims associated with Superstorm Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Katrina (2005)--and had not made a principal payment since 2010. The Biggert-Waters Act requires FEMA to issue a report to Congress by January 2013 on a repayment plan setting forth options to repay FEMA's total debt to Treasury within 10 years. However, as of January 2014, FEMA had not issued such a report. According to FEMA officials, preliminary analysis suggests that under FEMA's planned implementation of the act, the agency will not be able to repay its debt within the 10-year time frame. The officials said the report will contain options for retiring the debt within 10 years, but that most of the options would require congressional action. As required by the act, FEMA is establishing a reserve fund that could help reduce the need for future borrowing from Treasury. However, FEMA is unlikely to initially meet the act's annual targets for building up the reserve, due partly to statutory limitations on annual premium increases.
  • Premium rate setting. FEMA's methodology for determining full-risk premium rates may not fully reflect the actual risk of flood damage as intended. Consistent with recommendations GAO made in 2008, FEMA has initiated actions to improve the accuracy of full-risk rates, including updating data used in the model it uses to set rates. However, these actions are in the preliminary stages. FEMA had begun implementing Biggert-Waters Act provisions to reduce and eventually eliminate most subsidized rates on remaining policies. However, the 2014 Act reinstates some of these subsidies. Phasing out and eventually eliminating subsidies remaining after the 2014 Act poses challenges for FEMA. For example, to appropriately revise rates for policies that were previously subsidized (that is, had discounted insurance premiums), FEMA will need information on the relative risk of flooding and property elevations, which generally had not been required for subsidized policies prior to the Biggert-Waters Act. FEMA is evaluating approaches to obtain this information in response to a recommendation GAO made in a 2013 report. Premium rate increases arising from the act may also pose affordability challenges for some homeowners. The 2014 Act's repeal of certain rate increases in the Biggert-Waters Act will address affordability concerns, but may also reduce program revenues and weaken the financial soundness of the NFIP program.
  •  Participation. Overall NFIP penetration rates—the proportion of all properties with flood insurance—are low, according to estimates based on available limited data. In addition, while some homeowners are required to purchase flood insurance for the life of their mortgage loans, information on the extent of compliance with this requirement is limited. As of September 31, 2013, there were more than 5.5 million NFIP policies in force, but several factors have negatively affected program participation. These include inaccurate perceptions about the risk of flooding and the cost of purchasing policies, as well as the inaccurate assumption that flood perils are included in homeowner’s insurance policies. FEMA has taken a number of steps to broaden participation in NFIP, including development of a national outreach strategy. In addition, the Biggert-Waters Act includes several provisions to strengthen enforcement of the mandatory purchase requirement and to address some of the factors that limit participation.

Why GAO Did This Study

Floods are the most common and destructive natural disaster in the United States. NFIP, which collected about $3.8 billion in premiums and insured about $1.3 trillion in property in 2013, is a key component of the federal government's efforts to limit the damage and financial impact of floods. This FEMA-administered program has faced significant financial and management challenges over the years. As a result, the program has been on GAO's High-Risk List since 2006. Congress asked GAO to provide an overview of key challenges facing the program. This report summarizes GAO's prior NFIP work in a number of key areas, including finances, premium rate setting, and program participation. To do this work, GAO reviewed relevant GAO reports issued from April 2003 through February 2014 and reviewed FEMA documentation on the status of prior GAO recommendations. GAO also analyzed FEMA policy data as of the end of fiscal year 2013 and FEMA policy and claims data for calendar years 2010 and 2012.

For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-8678 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.

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