Many people have fears that since Superstorm Sandy, their flood insurance rates will go up out of sight. But according to FEMA flood insurance expert Steven Ardito, the new Flood Insurance Rate Maps have yet to take effect and most of the provisions contained in the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 – meant to get the National Flood Insurance Program out of debt – have been repealed. The Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act passed in 2014 will slow the increases of premiums, especially in regards to ownership.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency held a personalized seminar on the Preliminary Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) Feb. 26 in Stafford Township. Those who brought their Base Flood Elevation (BFE) survey with them and current flood insurance bill could get a pretty good idea of where their rates would be going once the FIRM map is adopted. The map has another year of making the rounds of government offices and public hearings before it is stamped “final.”
Indeed, the seminar on Thursday was part of the public vetting of the map.
Because the seminar was a one-on-one personalized session, the first stop for this reporter (whose Sandy-repaired house in Tuckerton Beach is on the wait list to be elevated) was a sit down with a FEMA Region 2 mitigation outreach person, Andrew Mortin. With my address in hand, he quickly pulled up a satellite map that showed my street and the roof of my small house. He discovered that my risk, under the flood insurers’ rating, would increase slightly because I am placed in an AE zone 9 on the new map rather than the AE zone 8. But because I was planning to elevate above my BFE of 9 feet above sea level, I could thumb my nose at the change. Tuckerton, I told him, has required in their ordinances that houses in Tuckerton Beach be elevated an additional 3 feet (of what they call freeboard), plus the one foot required by the state; I would be at 13 feet above sea level.
Mortin was impressed. “I applaud Tuckerton for that. I think that will greatly diminish the risk of flood damage.”
Mortin said anyone could, and should, access the preliminary flood map and learn their flood zone by going online to region2coastal.com.
Anyone who disagrees with the zone category where his or her house appears can appeal the map by going to his or her municipal flood plain manager with technical information that proves a disparity.
Since Sandy, I had done a number of stories on preliminary Flood maps, and I needed a refresher course from Mortin on just what map we were now concerned with.
Mortin explained that FEMA was at work on a new FIRM map that they had started in 2009 and were two-thirds finished when Superstorm Sandy hit. The first maps that were given to the public were for reconstruction purposes only and had nothing to do with insurance. “That was the ABFE (advisory base flood elevation) map for people who wanted to rebuild quickly. Then in January of 2013, we released a more final map but it was still a preliminary work map to be used only for construction. Now in January of 2014 came the Advisory Flood Insurance Rate Map. And after appeals we will release the Revised Preliminary FIRM.”
From this I learned that only the FIRM map was relevant to insurance rates. Okay.
So next was a sit down with Ardito, a FEMA Insurance Program Specialist. He looked over my flood insurance declarations page and pronounced it sub-par for information, so he wouldn’t give an opinion on whether I was paying too much. He did see a misstatement that said I was built on a slab and not on a crawl space, when I am up on three feet of concrete blocks.
Also we couldn’t figure out why my house, which was built in the early 1970s before the flood insurance rate maps were developed (pre-FIRM), was not grandfathered for a subsidy. But no matter, those subsidies would be going away eventually, he said.
The fact that some time in the future, my house will be elevated above the base flood elevation and be “in compliance,” means I will pay around $450 a year for flood insurance rather than the $1,700 I am paying now. Good deal.
“Even if the zone changes, that doesn’t mean that you will be penalized in your rate,” said Ardito. “Every time a map changes, homeowners can’t go out and bring it into compliance,” he said. “We understand that.”
For those who are not raising their homes and are below the base flood elevation for their area, a simple thing they can do to lower insurance rates is to install flood vents, he said.
There is a rather complicated scale that insurance companies use to bring up a base flood elevation artificially if the homeowner installs vents. “If your foundation’s lowest floor is at 3.01 feet, and the next floor elevation is at 6.04 feet, if the proper storm vents are installed you would gain 3 feet of betterment: The insurance considers that you are at 6.04 feet.”
His last advice was for each individual to talk to his or her insurance agent.
But for those who are elevating, each foot above the BFE, up to four feet, means a substantial reduction in rates. “For an example, in theory, for a house worth $250,000 and covered for $10,000 in contents, if at base level or elevation 0, the homeowner would expect to pay $1,200 a year,” he said. “Then for every foot above, they would see a discount. For 1 foot above BFE they would pay $900; for 2 feet $700; up to 4 feet, when it would be $450. To go any higher makes no difference in the rate – at 5 or 6 (feet above BFE) it would still be $450.”
So freeboard does work?
“That’s also based on whether the structure is resilient and code-compliant,” he said.
Ardito said the marketability of homes that have been mitigated is much higher than those that have not. Flood insurance rates are transferred to the new owners, no matter how many maps are done during the lifetime of the house.
“That was taken away with the Biggert-Waters Act, but that has been gutted,” he said.
To find guidance on installing flood vents, Ardito suggested going to the region2coastal.comwebsite, click on technical bulletins and find TB 1-08, which describes the type of vent that should be installed.
As for those dreaded V-zones, they apply to properties where high-velocity wave action is greater than 3 feet during a storm and experience such waves about once a year – a 1 percent chance of occurrence every year.
Sandy did not affect the FIRM, said Ardito. “Sandy far surpassed the 100-year event in magnitude, and that’s not what the maps are for. One such event does not change the maps.”
FEMA has just a few more counties to go in New Jersey with their public road show. When asked to describe the public response thus far, Ardito said that in general, people were pleased with the information they received. “All homeowners are basically the same when they come in: they are anxious and nervous about the unexpected. I would say we have a lot more happy people afterwards than when they first come in. They are getting information they might not get elsewhere, and that’s our reward.”