Lawmakers Work To Delay Flood Insurance Rate Increases

Jan 31, 2014

Homeowners Weigh Options As Lawmakers Try To Delay Flood Insurance Rate Increases

Thousands of coastal residents in New England could soon see their flood insurance rates skyrocket. The Federal Emergency Management Agency – commonly called FEMA -- recently re-drew its flood maps, placing many homes in flood zones for the first time. Some say the method used to re-draw those maps was flawed, and more time is needed to make the system more fair.  Congressman Bill Keating and other lawmakers are trying to delay implementation of the new maps, and prevent what they say could be a devastating blow to homeowners, and the housing market in general.

Annie Saganic lives with her husband and 2 kids in West Falmouth, in the 170-year-old house she grew up in.

“I played in that yard, and had tree forts and rope swings, and I have a lotta memories there," she said.

Last year, Saganic began hearing about big changes to the FEMA flood maps that determine flood insurance rates. Up until then, her house had never been in a flood zone. So she went online to check.

“When I saw how significant the changes were, and then I looked in our little part of the woods in West Falmouth,” Saganic said, “and I thought, uh-oh, that’s all pink. That can’t be good.”

Saganic’s house is now in an AE zone, one of the two zones that trigger big rate increases. She doesn’t yet know how high her annual flood insurance bill will be, though around the region homeowners are reporting rate increases of thousands of dollars. She’s hired an engineer to prepare an elevation certificate and see what her options are.

"Some of them are getting bills that are multiple times what they were before...Others are included in a map when they weren't before."- Congressman Bill Keating

“Based on what we find with the elevation certificate, I expect to research what we can do to make an improvements or mitigate it. And it’s all gonna come down to money,” she said.

Many other affected homeowners feel blindsided, and say the rate increases go too far. Congressman Bill Keating agrees, and recently he co-sponsored legislation calling on FEMA to delay implementation of the new flood maps. The bill has bi-partisan support.

Congressman Bill Keating leads the floor debate on delaying implementation of new FEMA flood maps.
Credit C-Span

“Some of them are getting bills that are multiple times what they were before,” Keating said. “Others are included in a map when they weren’t before. And that’s really put the impetus forward for delay legislation, so that the affordability factor was addressed. And it wasn’t addressed by FEMA in the implementation of this. And it was required to do so under the law.”

Keating worries about the ripple effect that imposing exorbitant flood insurance rates would cause.

“Many of these people will just walk away from their homes, and leave the lenders with an inventory at a time when they’re just trying to clear that inventory from the 2009 mortgage collapse,” said Keating.  

Keating argues that the methodology for updating the maps was incorrect. John Ramsey of Applied Coastal Engineering in Mashpee helped study the issue for Keating. FEMA used Pacific coast models to create flood maps for the East Coast. That type of modeling works well for long straight coastlines, like on the west coast.

“But you start looking at the coast of Massachusetts, and you have a lot of bays and headlands. And because of those various shaped shorelines, what you end up with is waves attacking the shoreline from a variety of angles, and the wave climate varies quite dramatically along the coast,” said Ramsey. “On the East Coast, we’re much more storm surge-driven, and so wave set-up generally is not the biggest issue. It’s a factor, but that methodology was really not developed for this part of the coast.”

But FEMA Senior Engineer Kerry Bogden disagreed.

"For areas that haven't had excessive damage relatively recently, the funding just isn't available to do the higher-end modeling." John Ramsey

“No one’s making a statement that there’s no difference between the two coasts. The Pacific coast had guidelines and specifications that were developed prior to development of guidelines for the Atlantic coast. But subsequent to the Pacific coast guidelines going into play, it was decided that that methodology would be applicable to the Atlantic coast as well,” said Bogden.

According to Ramsey, the Pacific coast models are too simplistic for the East Coast, but they cost more to do. Most of the money for more elaborate modeling is poured into areas such as Florida and the Gulf Coast, which have seen catastrophic storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew.

“For areas that haven’t had excessive damage relatively recently, the funding just isn’t available to do the higher-end modeling,” Ramsey said, “and so they end up doing simpler modeling.”

But improved modeling could make a difference in reducing flood insurance rates for strapped coastal homeowners.

“The two-dimensional methods are really not that onerous to do, and they certainly would show some different results. Are they gonna lower the flood zones everywhere? Probably not. Are they gonna lower them in many places? Yes. Are they more accurate? I think the answer for that would also be yes,” Ramsey said.

The bill to delay the new FEMA maps for four years passed in the Senate in late January. But its future in the House is uncertain at best, and the White House so far has not supported it.