The U.S. government's National Flood Insurance Program has drawn down nearly $6 billion from a Treasury Department credit line and is now burning through its remaining cash, due to the surge in claims following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency program, known as NFIP, which provides almost all homeowner flood-insurance coverage in the U.S., notified Congress on Sept. 20 that it borrowed $5.83 billion from the Treasury, leaving the program with no further capacity on a $30.4 billion credit line.
"The balance of FEMA's remaining borrowing authority is now zero," an agency spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement.
Roy Wright, a FEMA official who oversees the 49-year-old program, has warned that funds available to pay claims are likely to run out next month. Congress so far hasn't allocated any additional resources for the program, even though the House of Representatives attempted to pass legislation this week making it easier for private insurers to compete with the government program for flood policies.
The House adopted the provisions -- a lobbying prize long sought by big property insurers like Progressive Corp. (PGR) -- on Thursday as part of a bill extending the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration beyond Sept. 30.
The bill then went to the Senate, where flood-prone Louisiana's two Republican senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, introduced an amendment to strip out the insurance provisions from the FAA bill. The measure then went back to the House, where the amendment was accepted, clearing the way for President Donald Trump to sign it into law.
The NFIP has gone deep into debt in recent years, largely due to the government program's inability to charge premiums high enough to cover payouts that have swelled since 2005 as a string of hurricanes caused catastrophic losses. In 2012 Congress adopted a series of changes including higher premiums, only to have those increases halted just two years later amid a political backlash from affected homeowners.
In the statement, the FEMA spokeswoman said she could not comment on proposed legislation.
Congress and FEMA have never allowed a valid flood claim to go unpaid, according to the agency. In addition to its cash, FEMA has about $1 billion of reinsurance policies -- a type of wholesale backstop coverage -- to cover claims.
"We are collaborating with Congress so that every claim is paid in full," the spokeswoman said.
Some Democrats and Republicans from flood-hit areas have argued that private companies would cherry-pick the best policies -- those with the lowest risk -- and exacerbate the NFIP's losses.
During debate on the House floor on Wednesday, Garret Graves, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, said that the provisions to open the market to private insurers would accelerate the NFIP's descent into insolvency if not paired with broader changes to the government program.
"It is trying to artificially expedite the insolvency of the program," Graves said. "We are getting ready to have one of the greatest demands upon the National Flood Insurance Program for claims from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and yet we are diverting the revenue stream. Why in the world would you do that?"
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