Laury Pflaum and her boyfriend know their St. Petersburg home is in a flood zone. But since buying the house two years ago, they have been reassured by information from the National Flood Insurance Program that there has never been a claim.
So Pflaum was stunned when she recently looked at a Tampa Bay Times map pinpointing houses that have flooded repeatedly. There was her home — with three claims since 1978.
The source of that information also was the National Flood Insurance Program.
"Honestly, as the homeowners, we're just curious as to how there could be such a large discrepancy,'' Pflaum says.
As it turns out, the house, built in 1973, has flooded three times. But a problem with how the city is sometimes identified in the flood program's database — as "Saint Petersburg" instead of St. Petersburg — means that hundreds of other homeowners also might have gotten erroneous information about the loss history on their properties.
The glitch surfaces just as many flood insurance premiums begin to soar under a new federal law.
"The reliability of this whole thing is a problem,'' said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is among those urging Congress to repeal or delay the law. "This may be emblematic of the bigger issue of them lurching forward and having passed a law that does such great violence to people financially.''
Finding a flood-free house was especially important to Pflaum, who was a junior at New Orleans' Tulane University in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swamped her condo. Pflaum spent the next several months bivouacking in hotels, friends' apartments and a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer so tiny she used the bunk beds as a closet.
Repairs to the condo dragged on as her parents, the owners, battled to get the flood program to cover losses totaling more than $120,000.
After graduate school, Pflaum and boyfriend Jeffrey Oligschlaeger landed in the Tampa Bay area, where he does land acquisition for a home builder and she is an investment associate. They house-hunted in several areas but repeatedly returned to the Shore Acres neighborhood in northeast St. Petersburg.
"This seems like such a nice place to live, a quiet little enclave 15 minutes from downtown,'' Pflaum says. Besides, she adds, "we're Kansas kids and wanted to be near the water.''
In 2011, they paid $197,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath house across the street from waterfront homes on Bayou Grande Boulevard. They knew the street flooded, but the house, remodeled by the previous owner, had no signs of water damage.
Would they have bought the house had they known it had flooded repeatedly?
"I can't say if it would have been a deal breaker,'' Pflaum acknowledges, "but we probably would have taken a pretty deep dive into the issue during our inspection period.''
This fall, Oligschlaeger and Pflaum, both 28, paid close attention to controversy over the Biggert-Waters Act, which eliminates subsidized flood insurance rates for older homes. The new law is meant to bolster the flood program, now $24 billion in debt because of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
Most owners of homes with subsidized insurance purchased before the law took effect last year face increases of up to 20 percent a year. Owners of subsidized homes that have flooded repeatedly can be hit with a 25 percent annual increase depending on the number and amount of losses.
Pflaum read one story noting that despite repeated flooding in Shore Acres, St. Petersburg homeowners have paid eight times more into the flood program than they have gotten back in paid claims. Accompanying the story was a map pinpointing all houses that have had at least two flood claims since 1978.
"I saw our address and I was like, what's going on here?'' Pflaum says. The map showed three claims on their house — in 1982, 1985 and 1996.
But Pflaum and Oligschlaeger had just renewed their flood policy, which included a "property loss history.'' It stated: No losses on file.
The information on both the map and the policy came from the same source, the National Flood Insurance Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A home's flood history is important because it can affect the amount of money available to reduce the flood threat. Under its Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, FEMA can pay up to 90 percent of the cost of elevating a house that has flooded twice with damages totaling 25 percent or more of the home's market value.
Homes that have had multiple floods also can be harder to sell, real estate agents say.
"For some people, it does scare them,'' said Pat Lins, a Coldwell Banker agent who has many listings in Shore Acres.
Pflaum said she called officials with the city, Pinellas County and FEMA trying to determine whether there had been three claims on her house or none. She got no answers, so she emailed the Times.
After researching the matter for more than two weeks, FEMA came up with this explanation:
Though the flood program insures losses, the flood policies themselves are serviced by companies like Nationwide and State Farm. When a St. Petersburg homeowner files a flood claim, the insurance company enters the information in a FEMA database. Sometimes that entry used "St. Petersburg, '' and other times it used "Saint.''
Federal law requires FEMA to send the insurance companies a loss history each year on every policy they service. In the case of Pflaum's house, FEMA checked its database for losses reported at her address in "Saint Petersburg'' but neglected to check for losses reported at the address in "St. Petersburg.'' Hence, no loss history turned up on the statements Pflaum and Oligschlaeger have received from their insurance company, Nationwide.
"It was our error,'' said Dan Watson, a FEMA spokesman.
Could other homeowners in St. Petersburg — or cities like St. Augustine — also have gotten incorrect information? "It could be possible,'' Watson said. "So if somebody's seen their loss history and doesn't think it's accurate, they can reach out to us.'' (The number is 1-888-395-7496.)
Watson said FEMA is upgrading the flood program's computer system to avoid such problems in the future.
Now that they know their house is flood-prone, Pflaum and Oligschlaeger would consider elevating it. But since they still don't know the total amount of the losses, they are uncertain what, if anything, FEMA would pay toward the cost, which could run well over $100,000.
What they do know is that their flood insurance, now about $1,500 a year, could go up by hundreds of dollars a year. Pflaum and Oligschlaeger fear that would turn the house they regarded as a prudent investment into an albatross they might never be able to sell.
People who bought homes with subsidized insurance after the law took effect face even bigger increases — one Pinellas couple expects a $44,000 bill. Congress adjourned for the holidays without acting on a proposal to delay rate increases for four years. However, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a bill that would invite private insurers to enter the Florida market and, ideally, offer lower rates than the federal program.
"I don't disagree that the rates have to go up,'' Pflaum says. "I'm paying into the program to pay them back for fixing my house in Katrina, but the rates need to be affordable.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.