People living on Porter Avenue in Middlebury, Conn., face a threat that could put their homes underwater — but it’s not coming from nearby Long Swamp Brook.
The rising cost of flood insurance is putting a financial strain on local residents, and many others across the nation, who have suddenly found their property in a flood zone following a federal revision of flood insurance maps.
Catherine Konnik and her husband Steven bought their Cape Cod style house in 2002. Now that their children are older, the couple was close to selling their home — until a flood insurance quote led the buyers to rescind their offer.
“Your home is your life savings,” Catherine Konnik said Monday. “This is my savings account. It’s only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. If you can’t sell it, it’s not worth anything.”
The Konniks are having trouble finding a broker to list their house, and Catherine said one agent told them she could only list it at a steep discount.
Since being required to have flood insurance four years ago, Konnik said her premium rose from $400 to $1,300 to $1,700, and then to $1,874.
She recently hosted a gathering of 12 neighbors to discuss the issue and share their problems.
Massive flood damage from Hurricane Katrina and other major storms created a $24 billion deficit in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). In response, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, aiming to raise rates to reflect true flood risks, make the program more financially stable and change how flood insurance rate map updates impact policyholders.
But the new law had the unintended effect of raising some rates as much as 10 times higher than before.
In March, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014, limiting annual rate increases under NFIP to no more than 18 percent and instructing FEMA to have “an affordability target” seeking to limit the cost of a flood insurance policy to 1 percent of a home’s total coverage amount.
In 2010, FEMA revised Middlebury’s flood insurance map and, after a public hearing, town officials okayed it.
First Selectman Edward B. St. John, who was not in office at the time, said the problem is that the newer map does not take a flood mitigation project in the area into account.
St. John recalls a flood problem in the neighborhood in the `70s, but he and current Public Works Director Dan Norton say a project to deepen and widen Long Swamp Brook and to remove excess vegetation more than a decade later seems to have solved the problem.
“Even with the big storms we had, it didn’t seem to have the impact on the houses on lower Porter Avenue that I saw when I first came to work for the town,” said Norton, who was hired in April of 1984.
St. John hopes a search of local records may help the town to apply for a revision to FEMA’s map.
Landscapes change over time, and FEMA has procedures in place to update a flood map.
In a Nov. 20, 2013 letter, Paul F. Ford, acting regional administrator for FEMA, explained to U.S. Rep. Elizabeth H. Esty, D-5th District, that applicants must follow the same “rigorous standards” in challenging a map as FEMA does when it establishes the map.
St. John said this means the town would have to pay for consultants and studies — and FEMA still could decide against a map revision.
Porter Avenue residents asked the first selectman to look into seeking grants, but David Murphy, a professional engineer with Milone & MacBroom in Chesire, expressed doubts in an email to St. John.
Murphy said “the best thing homeowners can do is to conduct mitigation (elevating, eliminating basements, adding flood vents) to decrease insurance premiums.”
St. John said, “Hopefully we can somehow get some relief to these people. We’re leaving every option open.”
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