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Community Conversations: Aligning Incentives with Scott Van Hoff

June 10, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

In Community Conversations, we chat with floodplain management professionals about their work. This month: Scott Von Hoff, a Flood Insurance Liaison with FEMA Region X.

Hi Scott! Please tell us a bit about your work and background.

I am currently a Regional Flood Insurance Liaison. My primary responsibility is to assist policy holders with their flood insurance questions, support our NFIP member communities with technical assistance related to Flood Insurance and floodplain management, and promote insurance as a part of personal resilience to flood events. I work within the Floodplain Management and Insurance Branch, of the Mitigation Division, at FEMA Region 10. I have about 13 years of experience working in Floodplain Management. My educational background is in Geology and Hydrology. I previously worked as a hydrogeologist for Idaho Department of Water Resources and more recently I worked for the US Geological Survey as a Geospatial data specialist. I began my work at FEMA about 6 years ago as a Natural Hazards Program Specialist.

Geology to flood insurance! How did you get from one to the other?

I've always been interested in geologic hazards. As part of being a geologist or earth scientist, you become familiar with the idea of risk. As an insurance specialist now, my job is all about trying to quantify those risks and make them more relevant to the daily lives of the average person. There's a lot of cross over – much of my work now is about translating scientific knowledge into everyday language.

What is the hardest part of what you do?

Explaining risk to a homeowner or a local elected official in a way than they can understand the need and the urgency to plan and prepare for the hazards they face where they live and work. People tend to have a short-term focus and are more concerned with the “here and now” rather than something that has X% chance of happening sometime in the future. It is just human nature that immediate crisis, budget shortfalls, and election cycles get more attention than long term planning or building personal or community resilience to potential disasters. Oftentimes, by the time someone gets to me, they're simply frustrated or confused about what they've been told. One of my biggest challenges is making sure they know that I understand their position and I'm trying to be helpful and informative.

You work with a lot of communities throughout Region X. What are some things common misconceptions about flood insurance that you encounter?

The two most common misperceptions are “I can’t buy flood insurance because I live in a mapped floodplain” and “I can’t buy flood insurance because I do not live in a mapped floodplain”. I have heard these misstatements every year for many years. The truth is that you can buy a flood insurance policy from the NFIP no matter what flood zone you live in so long as your community participates in the NFIP (not all communities participate).

Another common misperception is that the risk of flood damage to your home is less than the risk of fire damage. The reality is that if you live in the 1% chance floodplain, your risk of flood damage is many times greater than your risk of fire damage over the course of a 30 year mortgage. Insurance statistics have shown this to be the case for many, many years yet homeowners consistently underestimate their risk of flood damage.

Risk communication seems to be a challenge for professionals in your position across the board. Have you found any strategies to be particularly useful?

First of all, given that I work for the National Flood Insurance Program, I think the most effective thing is for me to admit is that it is a very complex program. There is a lot of local and federal code involved, there are a lot of standard policies/practices, and we each have our own language to describe them. When you approach a homeowner, they don't really want to know all of that. They have a straightforward question and want a straightforward answer.

It took me awhile to understand that I needed to put aside specialty language and acronyms, and break risk down into common sense concepts. Instead of talking about base flood elevations or percentages of risk, I try to relate flooding to an individual's experience or to what they've seen in the news. You have to find that easily identifiable, common sense idea of risk, talk about the consequences, and then offer them solutions. Most people are reasonable once they understand what we're talking about and what we are trying to protect. It's a very small percentage of people who don't care about their neighbors or how their actions on their property impacts others.

Is communicating risk different for other types of stakeholders beyond homeowners?

When you're speaking with professional staff or elected officials, it's a very different conversation than talking to individual homeowners. City staff are usually very concerned with making sure their jobs are done correctly and getting the details correct. I find that people who are there longer term are often very interested in doing long-range community planning. Elected officials tend to be focused on their local economies. So when I talk to them about flood risk mitigation or building codes, I tie it back to the benefits/risks to their interests such as the local economy or tax revenue in addition to public safety. Often with local officials, I am speaking with them about the benefits of investing tax revenue in mitigation projects like buyouts, relocations, or setback levies. These big investments are sometimes built over many years so it's hard to see their payoff. You have to be able to demonstrate a return on investment on such projects. 20-year or 30-year planning horizons are hard to prioritize when you are facing a budget crisis or there's an election coming up in two years. Because of the turnover, maintaining those relationships with local officials is a big-time investment for me. But those people are often in a position to enact some of the most effective change in Floodplain Management. You never say no to a chance to meet with the mayor or an elected official and answer their questions.

What do you wish more people knew?

I wish people would take the time to understand the risk from all hazards (flood, landslide, wildfire) before they buy a home. Many communities have seen a significant drop in market value for homes with a flood history or homes that are located in an area that has seen an increase in flood risk in recent years. I have met people have been forced to sell their homes because insurance rates have risen to the point that they can no longer afford to insure them for the fire, flood, or other hazards they face. Insurance rates and availability is rarely the first thing people think of when considering to buy a home but, neglecting to investigate this expense before you buy can be a big mistake. I made this mistake myself several years ago. I built a house in a rural area without first doing my homework on the fire hazard and the cost of homeowners insurance. I assumed insurance would be cheap and easy to get. My first insurance company dropped me after 1 year due to the high risk and the only other insurance I could get cost more than twice as much. Had I known the high cost of insuring a house in that area, I certainly would have bought land and built my house in a safer location.

How do you see your field evolving in the future?

The insurance industry has embraced more advance modeling of risk using a greater array of data than what was available just 10 years ago. The NFIP is no exception. More advanced models can describe risk in higher resolution and with greater accuracy than previous methods and can allow more accurate pricing of that risk. This will be very good news for homeowners in low hazard areas or those who have taken the time and effort to build houses more resilient to the local hazards. Fire resistant and hurricane resistant houses are now actively marketed by some home builders in higher risk parts of the country. Building in earthquake resilience to new structures or doing “seismic upgrades” to existing buildings has become more common place in recent years. These commonsense measures to reduce losses also result in lower insurance costs. Those who continue to buy and build homes “the way they always have” will pay an increasingly large price for their refusal to adapt to the reality of the risk to their homes. The cost to insure homes that are prone to expensive damage will continue to increase more rapidly than homes that are properly located and built or retrofitted to be resilient to the local hazards such as flooding.

I can envision a future where insurability and cost of insurance will become a greater factor in accepted standard practices of homebuilding, marketing, and sales. I'm hopeful that insurance might be a factor in starting to break cycles of high-risk development at some point in the future.

In many ways, COVID-19 has dramatically changed our economy and ways-of-life. What do you think the impacts will be on floodplain management and/or flood insurance?

I think a potential positive outcome of recovery from the current COVID-19 emergency is that people will take emergency preparedness more seriously and apply it more broadly to their daily lives, both at home and where they work. Community resilience to disasters comes from members of the community doing their part to prepare as individuals as well as participating in preparations as a community, state, and nation. My hope is that we as individuals will pay closer attention to science based factual information about all the risks we face and take common sense steps to increase our personal and community resilience to those risks. Being adequately insured against a known peril is just one part of personal preparedness. If people become more risk conscious, I think floodplain management will improve as more people understand that prevention and preparedness minimizes losses, including losses from floods.

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