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State braces for flood insurance rate hike

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Flood insurance rates are expected to rise for many and skyrocket for some as provisions of a federal law begin to take effect this year.

Kanawha County is by no means immune, but county officials are working to ease the increases as much as possible.

"It's going to have a big effect in Kanawha County," said Chuck Grishaber, county floodplain manager. "It's already started. I'm getting inundated with phone calls."

In 2012, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was attached to the federal transportation bill, passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The bill was named for former Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who were members of the House Financial Services Committee's Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity.

In a nutshell, the act is meant to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program, which is deeply in debt. The increase is supposed to reflect the "full risk" for covering properties. Currently, many flood insurance policies are considered "subsidized," particularly residential policies.

However, the increase means property owners may no longer be able to afford such insurance.

Under the law, most primary residences will be able to keep their subsidized rate unless one of the following occurs: the property is sold; the policy lapses; the property suffers severe, repeated flood losses; or a new policy is purchased.

Nationally, only about 20 percent of all flood insurance policies are subsidized. In West Virginia, it's about 60 percent, said Richard Carte, an assistant coordinator for the National Flood Insurance Program in West Virginia.

"West Virginia is going to be hit harder," he said.

There are three other categories of subsidized rates for which owners will see jumps.

Owners of non-primary or secondary residences in a Special Flood Hazard Area will receive 25 percent annual increases until the rate reflects true risk. Those increases began Jan. 1.

Properties with subsidized rates that have experienced severe or repeated flooding will see rates increase 25 percent annually until the rate reflects true risk beginning Oct. 1.

Also beginning Oct. 1, owners of businesses or non-residential properties in a Special Flood Hazard Zone will see a 25 percent annual increase until rates reflect true risk.

The law has been frequently on the minds of residents in low-lying coastal states like Louisiana, but has largely gone unnoticed in other states - at least until the rate increases hit.

"Flood insurance and the reasons for it aren't established in the minds of the citizens of West Virginia," Carte said. "A lot of it is they just don't know."

But in Kanawha County, the law is poised to affect hundreds of policies, mostly along the Kanawha and Elk rivers, and Paint, Cabin and Hughes creeks.

County Commission President Kent Carper said the county is aware of the law, and is looking at the law's relationship to the area, especially as it relates to the county's flood mitigation plan.

"We're having (the law) reviewed as to the effects of it," Carper said.

Already, local residents are experiencing rate increases, Grishaber said. He said he heard from a woman who was selling her home and had secured a buyer, but when the buyer found the annual flood insurance rate would skyrocket to $1,400, the buyer backed out. The woman's rate was around $300 per year.

West Virginia Association of Realtors Executive Vice President Ray Joseph said his organization is aware of the issue, and is following the lead of the National Association of Realtors.

"This is an issue we've been working on," Joseph said.

Kanawha County had 3,590 policies as of May 31. Of those, 1,761 are subsidized primary residences - policies that will keep the subsidized rates until the property is sold, the policy lapses, there is an ownership change or the property experiences severe, repeated flooding.

In addition, 368 policies in Kanawha County are classified as business, non-residential properties or non-primary residences, and those rates will rise or have already begun to rise.

"I expect there will be several that will be hit pretty hard (by increases)," Grishaber said.

The rest of the county's policies will be unaffected, either because the law does not require their rates to go up, or because the property owners are already paying the rate of full risk.

At the county level, officials are working to reduce the impact of the rate increases as is within their power.

County Manager Jennifer Sayre said the county is in the process of becoming involved with the National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating System. In this program, local governments conduct floodplain management activities beyond the minimum requirements for participation in the flood insurance program alone.

There are 18 possible activities that contribute to the rating system, and can include outreach and extra information given to homeowners and builders. Communities are then given a point value and assigned a class for how many activities they complete, which determines a discount for insurance for residents and businesses. Class 1 is the highest of the nine classes.

Sayre cited Louisville/Jefferson County, Ky., as a community that earned a $700 reduction in premiums for residents based on its management activities. That government earned a Class 2 designation.

"We're reaching out to other communities," she said.

West Virginia has five local government entities participating in the program currently: Berkeley County, a Class 7; Buckhannon, Philippi and Jefferson County, Class 8; and Charleston, a Class 9 community.

Carte said Charleston's designation as a Class 9 community saves residents 5 percent on insurance premiums.

There are things homeowners can do to reduce their premiums, too, like constructing homes to be more flood-resistant and raise the building above minimum elevation standards.

Carte said one of the most important things policyholders for primary residences can do is not let their policy lapse. If a homeowner tries to renew their subsidized policy after allowing it to lapse, they will be faced with a much higher rate.

In addition, homeowners can ask for a higher deductible and obtain a certificate of elevation, which shows what parts of a home and property are subject to increased flooding risk. The elevation certificate is especially useful if improvements have been made to a property.

"That elevation certificate is like a piece of gold," Carte said.

The National Flood Insurance Program was first developed in 1968 after providing flood insurance to homes and businesses became too costly for the private sector. As a result, private insurers began dropping flood coverage. This government-backed insurance can be purchased through private insurers.

Essentially, policies considered subsidized are those built before a floodplain map was established for a community, a time known as the "Pre-Flood Insurance Rate Map (Pre-FIRM)" period. Subsidies were created to allow property owners to be able to afford flood insurance despite their buildings not being constructed in a way to lessen the effects of a flood. Once a floodplain map was established for an area, new rates reflected actual risk.

Pending legislation would delay or end provisions of the Biggert-Waters Act, but there are no guarantees it will pass.

Policyholders should contact their insurance agent with questions about any increases.

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Contact writer Matt Murphy at or 304-348-4817.



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