There was a time when premiums paid to the National Flood Insurance Program were enough to cover annual claims. Then came 2005 and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which put the program $18 billion in debt, according to a New York Times story this week.
The damage from Sandy, of course, will only make the program's finances shakier. Flood insurance claims from Sandy could reach $7 billion, while the program is forbidden by law from adding more than $3 billion to its already heavy debt, The Times reported. And this comes as Congress and the president are facing a federal budget crisis over spending and debt - the so-called fiscal cliff.
What it all means is that the National Flood Insurance Program is simply untenable, despite reforms enacted this summer that significantly increased premiums for vacation homes and homes hit repeatedly by floods.
And without the National Flood Insurance Program, there is no Jersey Shore tourism economy or real-estate market. Private insurance companies won't touch flood insurance. (They get paid to sell and service flood policies through the federal program, but claims are paid by the government.)
Few would live here without flood insurance. So, simply, the shore needs a sustainable National Flood Insurance Program. That means we all must get used to paying much higher premiums. And, more important, the federal program must make subsidized federal flood insurance contingent upon certain shore-protection measures.
As it stands now, people who live in towns that build dunes and take other shore-protection measures can get discounts on their flood premiums. But that carrot isn't enough. A stick is needed.
For example: If a town refuses to require higher elevations for homes in flood-prone areas, no federal flood insurance. Zip. Zero. None. If a town refuses to build dunes, or a homeowner refuses to sign an easement allowing the building of dunes, no federal flood insurance.
Certainly, some people will object to such measures. But the Jersey Shore can't exist without a sustainable National Flood Insurance Program. And trust us, there are critics in Congress who would kill the program. So it is up to the region to do what it can to make that program more financially stable.
Call it shoring up our own little fiscal cliff here in South Jersey.