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Questions remain at Hingham meeting on flood insurance legislation

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  November 7, 2013 12:13 PM

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Pending federal legislation may bring flood rate relief to some, yet if one thing was clear after a Hingham meeting about flood problems on Wednesday night, it’s that work is only just beginning.

US Representative Stephen Lynch outlined the progress in optimistic terms during the event, speaking to a group that had more local officials than residents.

“This is an ongoing process,” Lynch said. “I think we have tight language in the Congress and the Senate, we have broad support…and there does seem to be support from the White House. We’ll continue to move forward.”

The bill would put a four-year delay on much of the federal law known as the Biggert-Waters Act, putting off steep increase in insurance rates for many homeowners and businesses in flood zones until an affordability study can be conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition to a delay, the legislation would require FEMA to create a framework to address affordability issues, factor in all foreshore protections in determining flood risks to certain areas, reimburse homeowners who file successful map appeals, and certify that flood mapping was done with sound scientific and engineering methods.

Legislators have been scrambling to respond since the Biggert-Waters Act was passed. Meant to put the National Flood Insurance Program on a sound financial footing after Katrina, Sandy, and other major coastal events, the act has alarmed coastal homeowners, who flood insurance in some case will be higher than mortgage payments.

The new rates have been coupled with new flood maps implemented by FEMA, which have added thousands that have never been at risk in the past to new flood zones.

Though solutions are starting to materialize to the some of the flood rate problems, “this bill doesn’t do everything for everyone,” Lynch said.

Residents who hold waterfront property as income property or a vacation or second home will not see relief under the new bill. Lynch said legislation for that group was coming, but didn’t know if it would receive widespread support.

Even if a home is a person’s primary residence, those that have experienced extreme or repetitive losses to their homes as a result of floods would also not see the delay.

“We’re trying not to allow a small number of people to continue to deplete the fund,” Lynch said, noting that 1 percent of claimants to the National Flood Insurance Program accounted for 33 percent of claims.

Questions also lingered for homeowners stuck in a new kind of limbo among flood insurance changes.

Though Lynch said his legislation could pass as early as December, many locals are already receiving higher flood insurance bills or flood insurance premiums for the first time.

The current legislation doesn’t address reimbursements for people already affected, Lynch said; however, he may be able to put a provision in his legislation to allow for that.

“It may be a technical correction,” he said.

Becky Haugh, newly elected to Weymouth Town Council, wanted to know if residents new to the flood plain should take out low rate insurance while they can or hold off altogether.

For Doris Crary, member of the Marshfield Coastal Coalition, the answer is yes.

“Anybody newly mapped by these maps into special flood hazard area and never mapped before, need to get a PRP policy, preferred risk policy,” she urged. “[It’s] less than $500, doesn’t count basements and [is] being grandfathered for two more years when maps go into effect.”

Residents in the midst of filing appeals were also thrown for a loop by the pending legislation, not knowing if recalibration of the maps would still put them in a flood zone.

John Reilly, a Hull selectman, suggested a complete delay to the maps, yet Lynch objected.

“We might lose our credibility if we said stop everything,” Lynch said.

For those looking into appeals of the new maps, Lynch likened the situation to a belt with suspenders – individual appeals could only be an extra precaution on top of town-specific appeals and the map review.

Many residents were still reeling from the flood changes in general. One Hingham resident commented that if common sense prevailed, he would have never been put in a flood plain.

"I know you’re talking common sense, but we’re talking about the federal government," Lynch said, sympathetically.

Residents already in a flood zone also had questions about long-term solutions.

Cheryl Snyder, a Hingham resident whose flood bill rose from $4,000 to $16,000, wanted to know how to pay to raise her home while she struggles with higher premiums.

Also unclear was where rates may land once an affordability study is completed.

“There will be some increases down the road, but what we want to make sure is people can afford that, they are reasonable, [and] it doesn’t destroy the real estate industry,” Lynch said.

Despite unanswered questions, there was a sense of camaraderie in response. State Representative Bob Hedlund said a coalition had formed in Washington to address the flood insurance problems long term.

“There has been bipartisan effort to address this problem and correct the problems Biggert-Waters has left us,” he said.

Hingham Selectman Bruce Rabuffo also mentioned that communities from Quincy to Duxbury had come together to share information, resources, and appeal tactics.

“This is a concern to all of us,” he said.

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