Flood Insurance Rates Cut for Property Owners Affected By Remapping

By Jim Shur | May 24, 2010

Property owners across the country fearing they may be forced to buy expensive flood insurance under a push to draw up new floodplain maps will catch a break by being offered the coverage at sharply lower rates for two years, a key lawmaker said.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to offer the cheaper rates on properties affected by changes to flood hazard maps dramatically softens the financial blow for southwestern Illinois and other affected regions — at least for now.

FEMA has agreed to offer up to two years’ eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program’s Preferred Risk Policy — the program’s lowest-cost option — to small businesses and homeowners on any land the new maps show are in newly designated special flood hazard areas. The new rates are available after the redrawn maps take effect, in many cases this fall or early next year.

The savings could be big: An affected homeowner’s yearly premium under the preferred risk program might be $300 — four to five times less than what it might cost otherwise, Les Sterman, an administrator of a flood-protection district involving three St. Louis-area Illinois counties, said.

The lower premiums “are quite reasonable, and everyone in the area should buy insurance at those rates. It’s considerable relief to a point, obviously,” Sterman said, cautioning that bigger companies still would have to shop for the coverage on the open market — a price tag he estimates in his region alone to be $30 million a year.

Durbin, in a statement, cast FEMA’s decision as “only a temporary solution” ensuring that residents “will at least be financially protected at an affordable price in the event of a flood.” The long-term fix, he said, “is to bring the levees into a good state of repair.”

Messages left with FEMA were not immediately returned.

FEMA has been working on the map modernization for six years, among other things digitizing levee locations so crises handlers in post-Sept. 11 America could have instant, electronic access to data and other information about manmade hazards. The aftermath of Katrina in 2005 — and the sharp criticism of FEMA and the Army Corps about New Orleans’ levees — emboldened FEMA, delivering a lesson about getting serious about fixing levees.

FEMA is assessing whether levees can handle a baseline 100-year flood — that is, an inundation so big that it has only a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. It’s FEMA’s threshold for classifying an area a high-risk flood area.

The effort has stoked angst in many of the nation’s levee-protected areas that include Sterman’s turf, where the 64 miles of Mississippi River levees initially were built after World War II to weather a 500-year flood — one with a 0.2 percent chance of happening any year.

But the Army Corps of Engineers believes the region’s river defenses require, by some estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars in fixes to get it up to FEMA standards before the new maps come out and show the levees to be functionally useless. That’s money and time those managing the levees protest they don’t have.

The downgrade would force thousands of the region’s homeowners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance, even if they’ve never been swamped.

FEMA’s power to require the insurance comes from the 42-year-old National Flood Insurance Program that Congress enacted chiefly out of the public’s inability to get privately backed insurance for flood losses.

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