Environment

Over the coming decades, Jefferson County is projected to see more frequent and more intense rainfall due to climate change. This in turn could lead to more inland flooding. But following national trends, the number of properties in the county with flood insurance has decreased over the past five years, in response to rising premiums. And the majority of structures in the federal floodplain are without flood insurance.

In the wake of the flooding and damaged caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the Associated Press crunched the data and found the number of active federal flood insurance policies nationwide has dropped 14 percent since 2012. Jefferson County saw a smaller, but still significant decrease: 10 percent.

Metropolitan Sewer District Floodplain Administrator Lori Rafferty said those drops are largely due to federal legislation passed in 2012 that raised federal flood insurance premiums, in an attempt to make the program solvent. In Jefferson County, premiums have risen 15 percent since then — an increase which still reflects a discount the county gets for participating in the federal Community Rating System. In 2017, the average premium was about $955.

And in a place like Louisville, there are lots of different areas that carry a risk of flooding.

“It’s the streams,” Rafferty said. “There are a lot of streams within Jefferson County. We have 11 watersheds, plus the Ohio River, so there’s a lot of flooding.”

In the federally-designated FEMA floodplain — the properties that are technically required to carry flood insurance if they have mortgages — there are 7,000 structures. And only 40 percent of these actually have flood insurance, said David Johnson, the Development and Stormwater Services Director for the Metropolitan Sewer District.

He said sometimes this is because the properties don’t have mortgages on them, so they can get away without having insurance.

Or, “sometimes the lending institutions don’t discover or haven’t figured out that they’re in a floodplain, so they don’t require the flood insurance,” Johnson said.

In addition to these 7,000 structures in the federal floodplain, there are an additional 5,000 in MSD’s local regulatory floodplain, which is slightly more conservative. All this means there are 12,000 structures in Jefferson County that are vulnerable to flooding.

When properties flood without flood insurance, often there’s little or no immediate help for owners. But there’s a larger long-term implication too, Rafferty said.

“If they don’t have flood insurance, we don’t have the option to try to help them with a grant program,” she said. “A lot of the grant programs require you have flood insurance at a minimum, so for areas that are repeatedly flooded, we’ve tried to help people by buying out the ones that have the most damages. And if they don’t have flood insurance, we can’t go through that federal program to get that aid to help pay for it.”

Ideally, David Johnson said all 12,000 properties in the local and federal floodplains would be bought out, and restrictions would be placed on further development in those areas. But because a lot of those properties won’t be eligible for FEMA grants, it would be an incredibly costly undertaking.

As a way to start addressing that, MSD included $4 million a year for floodplain mitigation in this year’s proposal for a 20 percent rate increase, meant to buy out some of those properties that frequently flood. But that plan didn’t get approval from Louisville’s Metro Council, so it had to be set aside for now.

Featured image: Bloom Street in Old Louisville, August 2009. Courtesy U of L Archives/Photo by Jennifer Beswick

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.