On Tybee Island, a glimpse of why flood insurance is a vexing US challenge

Outwardly, David Satterfield’s quiet neighborhood on this barrier island’s southern tip looks pretty much like it always does. But Mr. Satterfield says the veneer is false. In fact, his world was shattered this fall.

The hurricane claimed his man cave.

The final lashes of hurricane Irma colluded with a full-moon “king tide” to flood large parts of Tybee Island for the second time in less than a year. Much of the island already up on eight-foot stilts. But rooms below a home’s “freeboard,” or bottom floor  – many of them turned into man caves, apparently – were hit along with entire homes sunk in three feet of storm surge. For Mr. Satterfield and hundreds of other homeowners, that means TVs, stuffed chairs, and other furnishings of a well-used basement were lost to flood waters that rose to heights not seen for more than 80 years.

In response, Satterfield is spending a fall afternoon building shelves – to put his prized belongings above any future inundation. His flurry of sawing, sweating, and bolting underscores a personal shift in priorities caused by a historic storm season – and a sense of creeping threat from the ocean.

“It’s the risk you take” living on a barrier isle, says Satterfield, whose family’s company was recently inducted into the Towing Hall of Fame. “At the same time, there’s only so much money.”

Amid a record year of costly hurricane strikes, Congress has until Dec. 8 to fix a federal flood insurance program that Bob Hunter, its former administrator, tells the Monitor “is failing in every way.”

To be sure, many coastal dwellers – including Jason Buelterman, the mayor of Tybee Island – are skeptical that Congress can summon the political fortitude to fundamentally reform how the country battens down its hatches.

At the same time, experts say the sheer numbers of homes destroyed by worst hurricane season in US history have brought the inadequacies of the nearly 50-year-old National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) into stark relief.

On Oct. 27, President Trump signed a disaster relief bill that forgave $16 billion in debt owed by NFIP. The program was already more than $20 billion in the hole before a series of strong hurricanes shook the mainland, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, causing more than $200 billion in damage. Back-to-back disasters are one part of the insolvency. But Congress, wary of offending coastal interests, has also hamstrung the agency’s ability to set premiums commensurate…

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