Oceans of trouble

Many of you remember the flooding back in 2011.  The Mississippi River floods in April and May of 2011 were among the largest and most damaging recorded in the past century.  Many homes across the Local 6 region were underwater, forcing hundreds of evacuations.

Across the country, billions of tax dollars are being spent on rebuilding and protecting expensive waterfront homes around the country that have been severely and repeatedly damaged by flood waters. Many of those homes are owned by the wealthy who can afford to pay for the repairs on their own.  That is the finding of an investigation that is prompting calls by some experts for the federal government to figure out new ways to deal with this costly problem

Ten separate times, an angry Atlantic Ocean has taken aim at this pricey waterfront house in Scituate, Massachusetts.  A small seaside town just south of Boston.  The cost of repairing the damage over the years is now close to one million dollars and taxpayers across the nation have paid a large portion of the bill.

"It's a very, very serious situation. the taxpayers come in, bail out the property owners and that's to great expense," said Jack Clarke with Mass Audubon.

The government calls flood-prone homes like this one severe repetitive loss properties.  There are about 12 thousand of them around the country, all covered by the federal government's national flood insurance program.  Private insurance companies long ago walked away from these and other high risk properties. 

Until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, insurance premiums collected through the program covered the cost of losses.  Since then, the program has racked up more than 20 billion dollars in debt which means taxpayers are on the hook to rebuild thousands of homes that are the repeated target of nature's wrath.

"That loss translates into public policy and public tax dollars that are being wasted when we keep rebuilding in these vulnerable areas," said Clarke.

In Scituate, the numbers tell the story.  About 150 homes repeatedly and severely damaged by storms over the years, 846 losses, and the cost 25.6 million dollars.

Add to that millions of dollars more in government grants to elevate and protect many of those same coastal homes. Tax dollars are paying for the repairs no matter how wealthy the homeowner is. However Doris Crary, a bed and breakfast owner says many of the homes in Scituate, and across the country, are not owned by the wealthy. Many were built decades ago to withstand the sea's fury. 

"Most of the people that live here are middle class homeowners. They're teacher, they're trades people, they're postal people. Those are the kinds of people who are my neighbors," said Crary.

Crary does not like an idea Massachusetts is considering for high-risk coastal areas like this one-buying back homes that, over the long term, have little chance of surviving the rising seas and more severe storms that are the result of climate change.  

The program has worked in Missouri, where river flooding can be severe and are gaining in popularity in New York and New Jersey, devastated by Hurricane Sandy. However, many homeowners like Crary said there is an alternative: elevate the house.

"I was very into making sure I did everything I could in the elevation process to not have future damage," said Crary.

The home at 48 Oceanside Drive was elevated several years ago with taxpayer funds and recently received 180 thousand dollars more to elevate again.

Clarke said it is time to face reality.

"With climate change and global warming and stronger storms, these houses will be increasingly more vulnerable," said Clarke.

As that happens, every taxpayer will continue paying to repair flood-ravaged properties that the sea is relentlessly trying to reclaim.

Three years ago, Congress took a stab at fixing this problem.  It significantly hiked flood insurance premiums to reduce dependence on tax dollars, but softened the blow when homeowners complained.  

The end result of that political battle: taxpayers will continue bearing a sizable portion of the cost of rebuilding expensive waterfront homes owned, in many cases, by the wealthiest among us.