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Report addresses flooding and flood insurance impacts on rural Pennsylvania

A new report co-authored by Penn State Law's Lara Fowler examines how flooding and recent changes to the federal flood insurance program are impacting rural Pennsylvania in unique ways.
rural Pennsylvania home flooded

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new report just released examines how flooding and recent changes to the federal flood insurance program are impacting rural Pennsylvania in unique ways. “Flood Mitigation for Pennsylvania’s Rural Communities: Community Scale Impact of Federal Policies” was authored by a team of researchers from Penn State, Bucknell University and Florida Gulf Coast University. The team was led by Lara Fowler, senior lecturer at Penn State Law and assistant director for outreach and engagement at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

Pennsylvania, with its historic pattern of development along rivers and streams, is already one of the most flood-prone states in the U.S. Predictions are for more frequent and damaging storms in the future. The researchers estimate that, out of Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million residents, 831,000—or about 6.5 percent—live in floodplains. There are about 374,000 housing units in floodplains—or about 6.7 percent of all homes in Pennsylvania. Recent storms in Pennsylvania and beyond have impacted not just those in the floodplains, but beyond.

Nationwide, the impact of severe storms has put the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) around $25 billion in debt, with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma expected to make this problem worse. With the NFIP expiring this month, the research team sees an opportunity to refine the program in a way that addresses Pennsylvania’s local government structure. The report offers guidance at a federal, state, local and individual level.

In 2012, Congress passed the Bigger-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in 2012 to help stem the financial impact experienced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after a series of damaging storms across the United States. The legislation called on FEMA to adopt “full risk” or “actuarially fair” rates for flood insurance, causing substantial premium increases for policyholders, especially those with subsidized rates. To slow the rate of these increases, Congress passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act in 2014.

“Even with the 2014 modifications, these changes have and will impact Pennsylvania,” Fowler and her colleagues write. “Increased rates will lead to decreased housing prices and short-term loss in property values; changes in the amount of housing stock; higher impacts to lower income households; and declines in overall household wealth.”

Although the Congressional Budget Office predicts premiums will double on average, one Lycoming County family cited in the report saw their premiums jump from $591 a year to $9,300—an almost 16-fold increase. In some of the communities studied in this report, some residents have simply abandoned their homes due to the impacts of flooding and flood insurance.

Despite the rise in premiums, NFIP has been critical in helping Pennsylvania’s rural communities mitigate the impact of floods, the authors argue.  

“The NFIP is unquestionably a benefit for residents and businesses in mitigating the extensive flood damage seen every year in Pennsylvania. Yet the structure of the NFIP produces challenges and problems for homeowners, renters, business owners, and other residents in many ways,” the researchers write.

In addition to Fowler, the report’s authors are Ryan Baxter, Scott J. Colby, Maurie Kelly, Kayla Kelly-Slatten, and Katherine Y. Zipp of Penn State; L. Donald Duke of Florida Gulf Coast University and Bucknell University; and Michele Weitzel of Florida Gulf Coast University.  

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania is a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly. It was created in 1987 under Act 16, the Rural Revitalization Act, to promote and sustain the vitality of Pennsylvania’s rural and small communities.


Lara Fowler
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