Speed Reads


John Oliver and a seagull explain why America's flood insurance program needs serious reworking

"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," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, trotting out some sobering statistics. According to FEMA, 90 percent of U.S. natural disasters involve a flood, "and floods are only going to get worse due to climate change," Oliver said. (For climate change doubters, he had some terse words.)

"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," he explained, "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."

There are a lot of factors that are making floods more destructive, like paving over naturally absorbent areas for development, but one of them is clearly surprisingly cheap, federally subsidized flood insurance. When it was created in the 1960s, the National Flood Insurance Program was supposed to be temporary, with people moving away from flood-prone areas when they were told their lives were at risk, but "that's not how people work," Oliver said. "Huge risks to our personal safety for the sake of a discount — that was the entire premise behind the McDonald's Dollar Menu."

The NFIP's incentives and execution need serious reworking, Oliver said. "For insurance companies, the bigger the disaster, the more they stand to profit," and just a few houses get a "shockingly big chunk" of the program's tax dollars. He suggested some reforms to the program when it comes up for renewal in December, and a seagull who had been pestering him all show provided the emotional denouement. There is liberal use of the f-word. Watch below. Peter Weber