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Penn State researchers study how flooding has impacted Pennsylvania

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Floods graphic

Two Penn State researchers are studying the area where lower rates of home ownership and the potential effects of climate change intersect. For Katherine Zipp and Lara Fowler, the intersection point is flooding.

Zipp, an assistant professor of environmental and resource economics, recently collaborated on a study about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) efforts to more accurately gauge the flood risks facing certain areas.

But even though climate change leads to an increase in areas facing flooding, FEMA’s model is silent on this topic.

“Climate change is definitely changing the rate and magnitude of natural disasters,” Zipp said. “However, when FEMA is setting these rates, they aren’t taking climate change into their considerations.”

The higher flood risks resulting from climate change in FEMA’s analysis are indirectly related to lower property values and higher flood insurance premiums.

The origins of the study began in Congress and its 1994 National Flood Insurance Program Reform Act, which required FEMA to create new flood insurance maps every five years. This provided a natural experiment for Zipp and her team, who used this data to judge how flood risks affected housing prices.

As of 2015, 94 percent of Americans live in areas with updated flood risk maps, compared to 21 percent in 2009.

Centre County, the focus of Zipp’s study, is one area that has been fully updated and remapped by FEMA. Zipp said her team “got lucky” in this regard.

According to Zipp, when properties are mapped onto updated flood zones, there’s a decrease in housing prices due to the risk of living in a flood-prone area and a federal requirement to buy flood insurance. This decrease in property value coinciding with an increase in living expenses is negatively impacting homeowners, especially due to the high cost of flood insurance.

“These premiums are the equivalent of renovating a kitchen or adding a new roof,” Zipp said.

Surprisingly, properties don’t rebound in value if removed from flood zones. The study suggests “being mapped out of a flood plain does not change homeowners' beliefs about flood risk '' due to an inability to realize the lowered flood risk in question.

Due to the pervasive effects of being mapped onto flood zones, Zipp said some homeowners are fighting efforts by FEMA to categorize them.

“Houses mapped into floodplains lose property value,” Zipp said. “And homeowners have an incentive to make sure the maps aren’t updated.”

Fowler, a senior lecturer at Penn State Law, also researches the impact of flooding and flood insurance on Pennsylvania, with a particular focus on rural communities.

Since the 1960s, the federal government has implemented various policies intended to protect Americans living in flood-prone areas. Much like Zipp, Fowler examines how these federal programs can either help or hinder them.

For example, the 1968 creation of the National Flood Insurance Program reflected a desire to provide “federal flood insurance to communities in certain zones and ordinances to keep them out of harm’s way,” according to Fowler.

The stability of this system, however, quickly eroded away when Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters struck in 2005.

“Since then, the federal government has been paying out more than it has been bringing in via premiums,” Fowler said.

In 2012, Congress passed a law commanding FEMA “to go balance the books” and charge people living in flood zones an “actuarially-fair rate.”

When passed, the law increased insurance rates and left many individuals in financial duress, according to Fowler.

After hearing stories of Americans on the verge of losing their houses, Congress reversed its initial decision and advised FEMA to pursue more consistent rates.

While many Pennsylvanian communities still benefit from proximity to bodies of water, they are also more susceptible to flooding as a result.

“We’re seeing an increase in climate change,” Fowler said. “We’re seeing an increase in precipitation.”

While federal law requires homeowners living in flood zones to have insurance, Fowler found that many people simply stopped paying for coverage after a few years.

“12,700 households dropped their flood insurance,” Fowler said, with these households having to choose between flood insurance and food.

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David Tilli is the opinion editor at The Daily Collegian. He is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and labor and employment relations.

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