Despite storms, sticker shock prompts many to opt out of flood insurance

Owning a home in coastal Connecticut can be expensive.

So ever-increasing premiums for flood insurance through the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program are making the policies a hard sell, despite more heavy storms hitting homeowners in areas at risk of flooding, according to data compiled by the Associated Press.

Connecticut is one of 43 states where the number of people paying for flood insurance has gone down in the last five years.

According to the Associated Press analysis, 6 percent fewer people have flood insurance policies in New London County this year than were insured in 2012, and the number of policies is down in all Connecticut counties but Middlesex County.

Diane Ifkovic, Connecticut's flood insurance coordinator, said the drop in policies can be attributed to two pieces of legislation: the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 and the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014.

Homeowners who have a federally backed mortgage on a house in a flood hazard zone, where there is a 1 percent chance of major flooding in any given year, must purchase flood insurance.

Connecticut, like the rest of New England, has many older homes built before the Federal Emergency Management Agency's current flood maps were drawn. The owners of these so-called pre-Flood Insurance Rate Map, or "pre-FIRM," homes were granted subsidized rates in the years before the Biggert-Waters Act reformed the way policies were priced with the aim of restoring the financial health of the heavily indebted National Flood Insurance Program.

After the passage of that bill, policy holders in those homes lost their heavily subsidized rates, and their bills were instead calculated based on real actuarial rise. The new rates increased insurance costs for the 40 percent of policy holders with pre-FIRM houses, Ifkovic said.

"In about five years, you kind of doubled your policy," Ifkovic said.

People dropped their flood insurance after paying off their mortgages, sold their homes to avoid increasing flood insurance premiums or hired assessors to prove the flood lines didn't touch their homes.

"People are starting to feel it," Ifkovic said. "You start to go, 'How do I get out of this?'"

According to the data that the Associated Press collected, the average annual premium in New London County in 2017 was $1,497, up from $1,199 in 2012.

About 3.3 percent of New London County homes are covered under the National Flood Insurance Program. Of an estimated 7,013 homes in hazardous flood zones, 40.7 percent are covered.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by FEMA, has not been in good financial health for a while. Even before this summer's storms and hurricanes did significant damages to multiple parts of the southern United States, the program was $25 billion in debt.

It also was set to expire on Sept. 30 until Congress passed legislation earlier this month that reauthorized the program until Dec. 8, allowing lawmakers time to distribute funds to victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma and develop reforms.

'A bad year' 

Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 temporarily may have pushed up policy numbers in Connecticut, Ifkovic said. Some homeowners were spooked by the possibility of damage from future storms, and some people were forced to buy policies as a condition of receiving federal assistance to repair their homes.

Federal money to help homeowners and municipalities pay for construction to make houses more flood-resistant after the storms also has helped people hold on to their insurance policies, she said, because improvements like raising houses above the flood line can bring premiums down.

But as premiums have continued to rise overall, more people drop them as soon as they can.

Thomas Norris is one of the homeowners who stuck it out. He has continued to pay the annual $4,976 premium on his National Flood Insurance Program policy, even after the federally backed mortgage on his Mystic house was paid off and he was no longer required to do so.

"My gut tells me this is going to be a bad year" for storms, Norris said Thursday. "I would hate to drop it and then get flooded."

Norris, whose Sylvia Avenue home sits feet from the Mystic River, formed an online group this year to try to help educate his neighbors about the risk of flooding and the nuances of flood insurance.

But many of his neighbors in Mystic don't see flood insurance as a priority, and many drop the policies as soon as their mortgages are paid off.

"Most people are starting to say, 'Well, wait a minute. Do I sit down and write that ... check, or do I take my chances on an every-100-year flood?' I could do an awful lot of good for my family with $5,000, and maybe just take my chances,'" he said.

In her role with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Ifkovic said, she doesn't try to push policies on homeowners who don't want them or can't afford them.

Reforms that would require more people to buy policies might help add money to the National Flood Insurance Program pot and alleviate some of the program's debt, she said, but convincing people outside of the current flood zones or who don't have federally backed mortgages to invest in flood insurance is a hard sell, she said.

The series of recent big storms hitting the U.S., like hurricanes Harvey and Irene, could convince some that flood insurance could be a good idea, both as a way to protect themselves and to contribute to other Americans’ ability to recover from flood damage.

"Whenever these things happen, everyone's in a big boat together," Ifkovic said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

Change in percentage of New London County homes with flood insurance from 2012 to 2017


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