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Many People Living In Flood-Prone Areas Can't Afford Expensive Flood Insurance


The Mississippi River and its tributaries are still flooding huge sections of the central U.S. Thousands of homes and businesses that are underwater do not have flood insurance; it's just too expensive. Premiums have gotten higher and higher as floods have gotten more frequent and severe, in part because of climate change. NPR's Rebecca Hersher spent time along the Arkansas River, where many people feel financially trapped.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Jason Trantina started working at the convenience store in Toad Suck, Ark., in 1997.

JASON TRANTINA: It's all I've ever done since I was 17 and in high school.

HERSHER: He worked hard and eventually bought the place and expanded it with his wife, Christy. They're the only store for miles, so they try to sell everything local people need - gas, diesel, groceries, live fishing bait, feed for farm animals, hay and hot breakfast sandwiches served very early in the morning, like farmer early.

CHRISTY TRANTINA: He gets there at 3, and he gets all of the breakfast food prepared, and he opens at 4 a.m. And so he's there. He's Mr. Reliable.

HERSHER: And Mr. Reliable's store is in the perfect spot for catching customers - right at the foot of the only local bridge across the Arkansas River - catch them coming both ways. It's also prone to flooding.

J TRANTINA: Anytime you have riverfront property, it's going to flood.

HERSHER: So the Trantinas bought federally backed flood insurance - basically, the only flood insurance available. It was pretty affordable at first, in part because big floods happened relatively infrequently. But as the years went by, the Trantinas had a problem.

J TRANTINA: In 2006, our flood insurance was $3,500 a year. The next year it was $5,000 a year. The next year it was $7,000 a year.

HERSHER: Floods were happening more often all over the country, and as flood risk went up, flood insurance got more expensive.

J TRANTINA: Everybody would love flood insurance if they can afford it, but there's not a person I know back behind our store community that was affected by this flood that can afford it. And they're all hardworking and good people.

HERSHER: It's a hard problem to fix. Letting flood insurance get more expensive is one way of coping with climate change. It creates an incentive for people to move out of harm's way. But what happens when your business is part of the fabric of a whole town that's not just going to move? Between 2006 and 2016, the Trantina's flood insurance went from $3,500 a year to $15,000 per year.

J TRANTINA: They're raising these premiums to run people out of the flood plains, which I totally understand that, but to say - like me, am I supposed to walk away from my business and my income? And I understand it; I know I'm in the floodplain. I know how deep I'm getting right now.

HERSHER: Right now because the Arkansas River is flooding. Trantina watched the water coming toward his store for days.

J TRANTINA: It's emotional, and it was hard and stressful to just stomach, I guess. I mean, you'd just pull over the bridge, and your stomach would just get sick.

HERSHER: In the end, there were about 3 feet of water inside his store. It's especially heartbreaking because after years of paying more and more for insurance, last year the Trantina's made a difficult decision.

J TRANTINA: We do not have flood insurance. We - this is the first year in 11 years that we have not had flood insurance, that we've owned it.

HERSHER: Now they'll have to rebuild on their own. Roy Wright is the former head of the National Flood Insurance Program; it's part of FEMA. Now he works for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. He says this spring's record-breaking flooding is a reminder that the entire idea of the federal government's role in mitigating flood risk needs to change. Whole communities need more options for insurance for raising buildings higher and even for moving, if need be. And it's up to Congress to do it.

ROY WRIGHT: Congress must direct FEMA to make the flood insurance policy as useful to Americans as possible. All too often, that policy doesn't meet the needs of a homeowner or small business as it exists today.

HERSHER: Congress is just starting to have these debates, but so far there's no plan that has enough support to pass. And this week Congress extended the National Flood Insurance Program until September, as is.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE MOORE'S "BELOVED EXILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.