Floods: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Floods They are clearly catastrophic, traumatic events, although they have also been responsible for one of the most memorable clips in the history of broadcast news

Good morning Well, obviously we're getting a nice break from the rain, but not the flooding -This is essentially now – (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) a part of the Passaic River in this neighborhood That's it

Fuck James Cameron and fuck Titanic, because that is now officially the greatest boat disaster ever captured on film It's over Now, floods were everywhere this summer Think of them as the "Despacito" of natural disasters Persistent, ubiquitous, and absolutely no fault of the Puerto Rican government

And floods are always threatening Ninety percent of all natural disasters in the US involve a flood Which is, I assume, the reason that FEMA's website once referred to flooding as "America's number-one natural hazard, exclamation mark

" Which is a pretty weird tone to take when describing something horrible It's like saying, "Boils: America's number-one staph infection!" Or "Parks: America's number-one place to die unnoticed!" And floods are only going to get worse due to climate change And I know that there are people who will dispute that, and we just don't have time tonight to litigate whether extreme-weather events are exacerbated by climate change So for now, let's just say (DRAMATIC MALE VOICE OVER) -Yeah -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) They just definitely are I mean -Sure, sure -(AUDIENCE CHEERING)

it is– It is a complicated issue, and we may not have definitive proof until the late 1980s But– But, while floods are often referred to as "natural disasters," the truth is the damage they do is often to some extent within our control Because we have made certain decisions that put and keep people and property in the path of flooding

And that is what this story is about And before we go any further, let's acknowledge that people live near water for all sorts of reasons For some, it's where their families have lived for generations, or a necessity for the work that they do And for others, it's a luxury And living next to the water is undoubtedly attractive, despite the risks, like flooding, or stepping on pointy seashells, or mistakenly giving a Tostito to a seagull without realizing that that means you will now spend the rest of your life haunted by a Tostito-addicted seagull

The point is, whatever the reason -to live by the water -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -(SEAGULL SQUAWKING) -many do– Oh, for fuck's sake! You've got to be kidding! I don't have any Tostitos! I've been telling you that for six years! Look, no Tostitos! No Tostitos! Get out of here Get out of here, you flying beach rat

-(AUDIENCE APPLAUDS) -Sorry The point is, the dangers of waterfront living are real But many people, like this man, who lives on the water in Tampa Bay, feel the benefits outweigh the risks REPORTER: Mark knows that life here is tenuous But he doesn't dwell on it

Every morning when I walk out to get the paper, I see dolphins frolicking in the bayou, and Roseate spoonbills walking around the edge of the bayou, so it tends to make you forget about all those sorts of things Sure, I can imagine that seeing a Roseate spoonbill would take your mind off things, because you're spending your whole day trying to figure out how a flamingo could have gotten its stupid bird face stuck into a panini press

-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -I'm just saying, even people who like birds don't like this bird The Audubon society, an organization whose entire purpose is to champion birds, says they are, quote, "Gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close" (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) Which is like the American Kennel Club saying, "We celebrate all dogs and honor them as man's best friend, but the Dandy Dinmont has a trash personality, and looks like a scotty fucked Phil Spector And look, look If you are literally overlooking a bayou like that guy you are probably aware that flooding is a risk But not every flood-prone area is directly along the coast, and sometimes aggressive development can exacerbate the risk of flooding, even considerably inland Just look at Houston, which was recently rocked by Harvey REPORTER 2: The metro area's development has exploded

One study found the Houston area has added 25 percent more pavement over 15 years, replacing soil-rich wetlands that could absorb water with concrete-covered suburbia Exactly, and that made Harvey's damage significantly worse Concrete isn't good at absorbing water That is why people don't dry off at the beach by rolling around in the parking lot But it's not just global warming or unchecked growth that have put more people in risky, flood-prone areas

It's also the fact that it's frequently only possible for people to take that risk because they have flood insurance Just look at Buying the Beach It's a House Hunters type show for people who want to live near the water And one episode featured two brothers named Mitch and Daniel arguing over a particular beach house which led to this exchange What do you think about the island house, Mitch? MITCH: Well, I think there was a lot of good and a lot of bad on it Right off those steps into the beach, can't be beat DANIEL: We are really close to the water That's just another thing that's got me concerned

Well, that's what insurance is for "That's what insurance is for" That may be the most reckless statement ever said on a boat And I'm very much including, "I can definitely make this shot work" And, "Hey! Let's feed these gulls some Tostitos

" -(SEAGULL SQUAWKING) -I don't have any! All I did was said the word Get out of here! No Tostitos! No Tostitos! But Mitch– No Tostitos! But– But Mitch Mitch isn't wrong

That if they bought that house, they could get flood insurance and surprisingly cheaply And it's worth taking some time to understand why that is the case, because unlike other forms of homeowner's insurance, flood protection is actually underwritten by the government, through the NFIP, or National Flood Insurance Program It started nearly 50 years ago, after historic floods wiped out many people's homes in the 1960s, and the government back then realized that there was a real problem Insurance companies wouldn't cover floods at an affordable cost, because it was too risky, so because of that, the government was spending way too much on disaster relief, so they stepped in, and created the NFIP, which offered significantly discounted insurance to encourage people to buy it, and that sounds great, but crucially, the aim at the time was not that people would be staying in at-risk homes permanently, as the program's current administrator explains They presumed that if we told people they were at risk, they would move

They presumed that over the life of the program, those discounts wouldn't need to be continued, and they presumed they wouldn't need to be continued because once people knew they had the risk, they would move out That has not proven true No, but of course it hasn't, because that's not how -people work -(AUDIENCE CHUCKLING) We will gladly accept huge risks to our personal safety for the sake of a discount, that was the entire premise behind the McDonald's dollar menu (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) A– and that is just one of the many flaws with how this well-intentioned program was designed, because everything about it from who participates to where the money goes, to the incentives it creates, needs fixing

And let's start with the fact that eligibility for the program is determined through flood plain maps You are required to buy flood insurance if you have a federally-backed mortgage and FEMA's maps show that you live in a risky area Unfortunately, the mandate has been poorly enforced, meaning that lots of people don't buy insurance who should And the maps themselves can be both out of date and wildly inaccurate In fact, just days before Harvey struck, a study of Houston area flood maps was published and the results were alarming

REPORTER 3: Over the course of a decade, researchers at Rice University and Texas A&M Galveston studied one section of southeast Harris County They found FEMA's flood plain maps missed about 75 percent of the damages from the storms– Seventy-five percent At that point, you might as well predict floods by having blindfolded six-year-olds pin little cardboard puddles onto city maps at birthday parties But even if all the maps were perfect, there would be another flaw with the NFIP, which is how it's administered You see, typically the government doesn't directly insure you

Instead, it pays private insurance companies a fee for every policy they sell But not just that The federal government is then responsible for covering any losses, which is a pretty fucking sweet deal for those companies They take none of the risk, and yet they get all the rewards, but it gets even worse, because they also get paid for each claim they handle And when Frontline crunched some of the numbers, and presented them to a former head of the program, they found something shocking

REPORTER 4: There was one number that really jumped out With all the claims in the wake of Sandy, the profits were more than $400 million Because they're handling a lot of claims that year and they get– make a lot of money when they handle claims When a big storm hits then, they make more money Yeah, at the very time you need them to make less money if anything, because– because of– the burden is gonna be borne by the taxpayers, they make a killing

That's true For insurance companies, the bigger the disaster, the more they stand to profit And that is a business model not usually seen outside of Nicholas Cage's career (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) (STAMMERS) And while the insurance industry may dispute exactly how much profit they make, the fact remains that the government and the taxpayer are definitely the ones eating the losses, which is one of the reasons why even before these latest hurricanes, the program was $25 billion in debt, and there are not enough Roseate spoonbills in the world to take your mind off that, and just to be clear, there are exactly enough Roseate spoonbills in the world I– I'm just saying, do we all really need more of this? (BIRDS WHINE) "Hey kids, come see! The dirty pink dinosaur is noisily devouring its young!" (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) And look, there is a good argument to make that helping people stay in their homes after a disaster is what government is for

But remember, a big chunk of that money is just going to the insurance companies and another shockingly big chunk of that money goes to very few homes For instance, along the Gulf Coast in Florida, just one percent of properties covered by the NFIP have accounted for a quarter of flood claims These are called (STAMMERS) so-called "Repetitive-loss properties" Now, they are homes that can flood over and over and over again, getting payments each and every time

And some of them are costing us a fortune REPORTER 5: Just recently, an article in The Washington Post highlighted a home in Pointe Coupee Parish that has flooded 40 times While the house is valued at just $56,000, the NFIP has doled out nearly $430,000 to cover flood claims -So, that is just stupid -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) Because if nothing else, if your house floods 40 times, Mother Nature is sending you a pretty clear message, and that message is, "Hey, would you mind leaving? Some weird fish would like to fuck in here now

" (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) And some parts of the country have particularly extreme examples of this Now, you remember Mitch and Daniel? The pastel deathtrap that they were looking at is on a place called Dauphin Island, where over the past two decades, homeowners have paid just $93 million in premiums into the NFIP, but they've received $722 million in payments for their damaged homes It is so bad that the island got written up by Bloomberg under the headline, "Love of Coastal Living is Draining U

S Disaster Funds" And at first glance, we thought, "Hold on Isn't that the exact same eyesore on stilts that Mitch and Daniel almost bought?" Well, the good news is, it's actually not The bad news is, it's literally the house next door and it was also featured on a different episode of Buying the Beach

WOMAN: It's right in the water It wasn't close to the beach, it was in the ocean The waves are just right here (EXHALES) It's literally in the ocean This is insane -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -Yeah, it is insane, but what's even crazier is at the end of the episode, -they decided to buy the house! -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) But even if you were able to overlook the repetitive loss properties, which you shouldn't, there is another issue, and that is that nearly one out of every five homes covered under the NFIP is a second home And because the program isn't means tested, the benefits frequently go to some wealthy individual's vacation homes

One such property belonged to John Stossel, a Fox News personality, and partially hydrogenated Tom Selleck -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -And– and I'll let Stossel, who really answers the question "What if Freddie Mercury had quit singing to become an assistant floor manager -at Men's Warehouse?" I'll– -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) I'll let him tell you all about it, 'cause even he knew it was ridiculous JOHN STOSSEL: Years ago, I built this beach house That's younger me, there The house was on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a risky place to build, but I built anyway

'Cause a federal program guaranteed my investment Eventually, a storm swept away my first floor, but I didn't lose a penny Thanks I never invited you there, but you paid for my new first floor Okay, so now Stossel is clearly just baiting people, because under no circumstances does anyone want to be funding the reconstruction of the world's smuggest man's rickety sea prison

-(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -And there is lots to be confused about there, not– not least of which, that photo of Stossel posing shirtless in skin-tight white swim trunks from hundreds of feet away -Who took that photo? -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) It can't be another human who wanted it So, here's my guess I think that he put a camera on a long delay timer, then sprinted for a full 45 seconds back to the deck of his house, whispering "hurry, hurry, hurry!" to himself the entire time, and got in position just in time for that photo to happen That is the only scientifically possible explanation

We debated this the entire fucking week and it's the only scenario that we could all agree on -(AUDIENCE CHEERING) -And look– look Here's the– here's the thing If If you choose to build something in a risky place like John Stossel's salt-battered, -bottom's-only beach mistake, -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) you should absolutely be allowed to do that, but you shouldn't expect the government to repeatedly help you rebuild when things inevitably go wrong However, the vast majority, the vast majority here of NFIP beneficiaries are not wealthy, or second homeowners They often really need this program and cannot afford for it to go under And, for those stuck in repetitive loss properties, it is easy for anyone to just say, "They should move, they should just move

" But, it's much more difficult than that as this Kentucky woman, whose home has flooded repeatedly, will tell you We couldn't sell our house Who would want to buy a house that's had this many repetitive floods in it? Who would want to buy a house? We have neighbors that have had their houses up for sale for two and three years and haven't even had anyone come and view the house We need a buy out from FEMA or from whoever it is that is responsible for this Right, and her decision to try and leave that home could not have been easy because you don't want to throw out the baby with the floodwater

But, at a certain point, the responsible thing to do is to get a better, more water-resistant baby Which is, incidentally, also the title of Britain's best-selling book on teaching children to swim (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) Now, unfortunately, our buy-out programs are hugely underfunded and prohibitively slow It can take years for buy-outs to get approved, by which point, homeowner's have probably had to rebuild their house at the government's expense and it may have already flooded again So, essentially, a government program that was supposed to help people in flooded homes is sometimes trapping them inside them indefinitely

And trapping people in structurally-unsound homes isn't what the government is for, it's what buying the beach is for (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) No, there just has to be a better way here, and there are some key things that we can do to improve this program We can do things like means-test it and eventually get rid of discounts for second homes and gradually increase the insurance rates on some properties so that they reflect actual risk Unfortunately, the last time that Congress tried a major reform of the NFIP with the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, the result was that many people's rates skyrocketed overnight and politicians were so spooked by angry constituents they significantly scaled back many of the reforms And, I'm not saying that this will ever be politically easy

Because even if you do properly fund and streamline a buy-out scheme, there are still going to be cases where people just want to stay put Right here in New York, there is a low-line community called "Broad Channel," where the streets can flood twice a month Its residents fought against those rate increases a few years ago and many of them have no interest in leaving No, the neighborhood's too great then Listen, my whole house got destroyed by Sandy and I– you know, I redid my whole house

I– You know, people were like, "You're crazy, you should move" I said, "Absolutely not" (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) But, you're standing in water right now Maybe the people telling you to move were saying, "At the very least, can you move up five inches to dry land?" (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) But the hard truth here is even expensive interventions are likely to only buy that community a little more time and people in Broad Channel will eventually be leaving, whether it's by moving truck or by boat because environmental conditions are going to get worse Heavy downpours have increased in the last 50 years and sea levels have been climbing steadily and I'm not saying that that is because of climate change even though

(DRAMATIC MALE VOICE OVER) It just is It just– It just is Precisely

The NFIP is actually due for re-authorization this December and I would argue that it is time to take another shot at serious thoughtful reform because without it we have an unstable, unsustainable program that is indirectly harming some of the people that it was designed to help and (STAMMERING) I do– I don't have any– -I've told you the last time– -John, John, John! Relax! I'm not here for Tostitos -Really? -Yeah

Hold on You– You– You can talk? Of course Seagulls can talk We just choose to listen most of the time -♪ (PIANO PLAYS SOFTLY) ♪ -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) Oh, well, that's– That's actually very nice

And, I heard what you were saying about flooding -and you are right -Mm-hmm I've seen it I'm a seagull -Yeah

-Some people in high-risk areas will need to move and we should give 'em the help that they can do that with -Right Okay -Because While leavin' your home is hard, being forced out when it's uninhabitable is ten times harder -Right -And, after all, your home isn't just walls and a roof, it's where the people you love are Aw! Seagull, I gotta say that was absolutely beautiful

Yeah, not bad for a "flying beach rat" -Aw, no, no, no, no, no, don't– -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) Don't talk like that about yourself No, don't, don't It's okay I know it's true

You know it's true Everybody watchin' knows it's true Hey, I eat French fries out of the garbage Yeah, you're right You make a good point

You're absolutely disgusting -(AUDIENCE LAUGHING) -But– But you know what? I am truly sorry for misjudging your motives in coming here That's okay, Johnny Uh, just one more thing Sure Anything You have any Tostitos? Fuck you! No! I do not have any Tostitos! They're all gone Get the fuck outta here


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