Pennsylvania River Towns Facing Rising Flood Insurance Rates

By and | March 27, 2014

Jeff King had put his house in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., up for sale for $90,000 last year, put off by the city’s struggles with crime and the desire for a better school district for his four children, when he got a surprise: The prospective buyer discovered that her annual flood insurance premium would be $7,015, higher than 12 months of mortgage payments.

Even though President Barack Obama signed a law last Friday to ease the sharpest premium increases for policyholders receiving subsidies from the National Flood Insurance Program, King is resigned to never selling the house, which is about a mile-and-a-half from the Susquehanna River. The writing, he said, is on the wall.

“Any educated buyer is going to stay clear from a home in the flood area,” King said.

Across Pennsylvania, with an estimated 86,000 miles of creeks, streams and rivers, the premium increases could deliver a gut punch to the state’s legion of old river cities and towns still struggling to recover from the loss of their industrial core.

The new law slows down a 2012 overhaul that aimed to shore-up the National Flood Insurance Program by requiring policyholders to begin paying risk-based rates. But the measure merely delays the rising premiums that will hit as many as 1.1 million policyholders across the country, including more than 34,400 in Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

For businesses and owners of second homes, premiums will increase a mandatory 25 percent a year. For others, the increases are capped at 18 percent, but FEMA has the discretion to ease the steepness of the increases. All of those policyholders are facing some sort of price hikes.

There are 57 cities and towns where at least 100 homes or businesses are paying subsidized rates for their flood insurance. Twenty two, including Muncy, Kittanning and New Hope, have a population of under 5,000. Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Bristol, Johnstown, Jersey Shore and Wilkes-Barre have the most.

Pennsylvania has received $1.1 billion in payouts and has been more active than any other state without a coast line.

Some towns in Pennsylvania have gotten their money’s worth. Bloomsburg, Penn., has received $31 million, more than any other municipality, and paid just under $500,000 in premiums in 2013. Meanwhile, Carlisle, New Castle, Forty-Fort and Kingston paid more in premiums in 2013 than they’ve received in the program’s entire 35-year history of payments.

In Harrisburg, Penn., around 880 policyholders are looking at rising premiums.

Nancy Cipriani got a taste of the higher rates when the annual insurance bill on her home tripled to $3,100 — and that was only after she reduced her coverage.

That rate will now go back down to the $1,000 she was paying before — but only to begin climbing again. Cipriani is concerned that the uncertainty over where rates are headed may make it difficult to ever sell the house for what she paid.

“There’s no point in buying a house if you can’t afford the insurance,” she said.

Numerous river towns have downtown areas that sit squarely within designated flood hazard zones, including Johnstown, Penn., the site of devastating floods in 1889, 1936 and 1977.

“In a town like ours that is starved for business investment, no one will ever buy another building with this kind of provision,” said Jim Brett of the Brett Insurance Agency in Johnstown.

There are few alternatives to the National Flood Insurance Program that will satisfy the requirements of mortgage lenders, but a handful of people have begun to turn to the small number of private-sector insurers.

Shelly Varner, of Sidman, saw her premium jump to nearly $3,000 last year. She was able to get an alternative policy underwritten by Lloyds of London for just over $1,000, but she worried whether that option would last, or whether someone else buying the same house would have trouble getting a similar policy.

“It still didn’t take that big, red `X’ off the house,” she said.

For King, he is resigned to living in his Regent Street house in Wilkes-Barre and then renting it out after he saves up enough money for a down payment on a house in the suburbs.

“We threw the flag up,” King said. “We’re here.”

Caruso reported from Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania.

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