FEMA studies changing flood maps

By Steve Estes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be visiting the Keys July 21-23 to begin the process of revising the county’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

And depending on how that shakes out when the study is scheduled to be completed in 2017, it could again give rise to significant flood insurance premium increases, even if homeowners dodged the bullet this time around with the fallout from the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act.

When Congress voted in Biggert-Waters it was for the express purpose of stabilizing fund balances for the National Flood Insurance Program,a FEMA program where residents in flood prone areas can purchase federally subsidized flood insurance.

After taking huge claim hits following Hurricane Katrina in 2004 and Super Storm Sandy in 2011, the NFIP coffers were estimated to be some $17 billion in the red.

So Congress enacted new flood insurance legislation. That legislation had the potential to jack up flood rates for pre-FIRM homes, second homes and commercial buildings by staggering sums.

After homeowners protested, claiming the new rates would lead to a new round of foreclosed properties glutting the barely recovering housing market, Congress last year amended Biggert-Waters to delay moves for four years and change the parameters for second homes and commercial properties.

Some of the increases are still in place, but nothing like the $30,000 per year increase some local properties were slated to receive.

But the chances that local flood rates will go up for certain groups of properties in the Keys once the remapping effort is completed is a safe bet,according to County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who is also president of the insurance advocacy group Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe.

Flood insurance is currently based on a home’s elevation above sea level. Most of Monroe County is in a flood zone where base flood elevation, that predicted to be the highest level in a 100-year storm, is about eight feet above sea level. Homes closer to the open water may have flood zones as high as 13 feet.

To combat paying huge claims in flooding events, FEMA has for years asked that homes here be elevated above base flood and that no habitable space be established below base flood elevation.

The majority of Monroe County homes are built to that standard.

Now that standard may change.

The current FIRM maps do not include whatever amount sea level has risen in the past couple of decades, the last time rate maps were changed across the board.

Property owners with homes that were built with the lowest elevated floor just inches above base flood may well find themselves below base flood once the new maps take effect.

And that moves those homes out of the preferred rate category into the not-so-preferred rate category for flood insurance.

“We have no way of knowing how many of those properties there might be until the mapping is complete, but we can guess we will have some,”said Carruthers.

The difference between preferred rate premiums and that of homes with the lowest flood below base flood is about “tenfold,” said Carruthers.

She estimated that a home less than one foot below base flood could see a yearly premium of $6,000 based on valuation, while that same property right now can be about $900 per year.

She said she expects base flood elevations to change by at least the amount of sea level rise in the last 30 years or so, somewhere between seven and nine inches based on readings in Key West.

She said it’s also possible that FEMA will take into account projected sea level rise over the next 30 years or so, estimated by some to be as little as nine inches, but by other to be as much as 14 to 18 inches.

That could place a home that is currently a foot above base flood below the watermark in terms of flood insurance risk, triggering a significant increase.

“For new homes, the higher you elevate the better off you are in terms of flood insurance costs, but the older homes are the ones we have to consider as this process goes forward,” said Carruthers.

She said county staff is just now beginning to look at options to elevate existing homes.

“It’s costly,” she said. “But there are FEMA grant programs out there we can utilize for this effort.”

One of the programs she is researching is the PACE grant program where homeowners apply for grants to elevate homes through a county rolling loan fund.

“The loans are paid back through the tax bill. The best part of the program is that the loan costs go with the home, not the homeowner,” she said.

She says it is already available for commercial properties, but staff here is trying to find a way to use it for residential properties as well.

She said she also wants to start a public information campaign about the changes in the Flood Insurance Affordability Act that amended Biggert-Waters.

“This new act allows homeowners to get mitigation credits against flood insurance premiums for steps taken to flood-proof the home,” she said. “We can already do that with commercial properties, now we can work on residential properties.”

She admits there are no immediate, easy answers to the coming issue.

“And nothing happens overnight. This may be a 30-year process. We’re going to have look at tightening our building codes to address flood issues,” she said.

She promised that county staff, as well as staff from our immediate neighbors to the north, will be following the discussions closely.

The first series of public input meetings will be held July 21 fro 2 to 4 p.m. in the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo; July 22 10 a.m. to noon in the BOCC meeting room at the Marathon Government Center and July 23 10 a.m. to noon at the Harvey Government Center in Key West.

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