Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Even with Shore Acres, St. Petersburg paid 8 times more into flood insurance than claimed

If there's an argument that Florida residents already pay too much for flood insurance, Shore Acres is it.

The low-lying neighborhood of 2,300 homes in northeast St. Petersburg is one of the most flood-prone areas in Tampa Bay.

Since 1978, so many Shore Acres houses have flooded two, three, even five times that they have helped make St. Petersburg one of the top 30 places in the country for claims filed with the beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program.

Even so, the flooding that has hit Shore Acres is not why the flood program is $24 billion in debt.

St. Petersburg homeowners ­— through their flood insurance premiums — have more than paid for the cost of repairing homes in Shore Acres and every other property that has flooded in the city over the past 35 years.

In fact, St. Petersburg property owners have paid eight times more money into the flood program than they have gotten back to cover losses — $480 million paid in versus $55 million received, records show.

Statewide, Floridians have paid $4 into the program for every $1 returned.

"We have done more than our fair share to make the (flood program) financially sound,'' Gov. Rick Scott said in a recent letter to Florida's two U.S. senators.

Yet thousands of homeowners in Shore Acres and the rest of coastal Florida face huge premium increases because of the Biggert-Waters act, which phases out insurance subsidies for homes built before the federal government began requiring tougher construction standards in flood zones. Most homeowners will see premiums jump as much as 20 percent a year over the next five years, while subsidies will end immediately when homes are sold or policies lapse.

A bipartisan group in the U.S. House and Senate has agreed on a measure to delay the increases for four years. If Congress fails to act, flood insurance premiums could soar to $10,000 a year or more.

Eliminating the subsidies has been cast as an effort to make homeowners pay their fair share.

The reality on the ground in St. Petersburg raises questions about that argument.

Since 1991, the city has spent $9.2 million on flood prevention in Shore Acres alone, raising several streets by 6 inches and building vaults that keep water from backing up in drainage pipes during high tides.

"It's not going to help when the tide is higher than seawalls," said Thomas Gibson, St. Petersburg's capital improvements director. "But the vaults do prevent routine tidal flooding of streets, which helps protect everybody's cars and other infrastructure affected by saltwater."

The results can be seen in declining flood claims, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of the 354 St. Petersburg single-family residences that have had at least two claims since 1978.

Even houses that flooded in Hurricane Frances in 2004 have remained dry since.

"I've never seen a drop of water come anywhere near my property since they did that work,'' said lawyer William Walker, whose home on Denver Street in Shore Acres flooded three times before the city made improvements.

If the proposed rate increases go forward, options are limited for Walker and other homeowners.

Dropping flood insurance is possible only for those who don't have mortgages. Tearing down an old house and building bigger and higher generally makes sense only in prime waterfront locations.

A few owners have raised existing houses.

Retired police Officer Billy Atkins and his wife, Bonnie, bought their 1,200-square-foot Shore Acres home in 1977. In June 1982, a no-name storm sent 10 inches of water seeping into the house.

Three years later, water rose 18 inches inside while Hurricane Elena stalled off the coast for days.

Sick of dealing with ruined furniture and flooring, the Atkins spent $20,000 to raise the house 3 feet. That was enough to keep them dry in 1996 when Tropical Storm Josephine swamped more than 900 Shore Acres homes, and in 2004, when Hurricane Frances flooded a few hundred.

But the Atkins' home is still a few feet lower than required by coastal construction standards, meaning they still pay $1,800 a year for flood insurance and will be hit with big increases every year unless they drop coverage.

"We could have gone a little higher," Bonnie Atkins said, "and I wish we had.''

Today, though, the cost of elevating a house can be prohibitive.

Mark Roesch, owner of a Largo house-moving company, quotes rates of about $45 a square foot to raise a home 3 to 5 feet, and $100 a square foot to raise one 10 feet.

That works out to $120,000 for a modest 1,200-square-foot house. And that doesn't include thousands of dollars to add stairs and redo the driveway and landscaping.

After news of impending rate hikes, Roesch said he had about 30 calls from people interested in elevating their homes. He recently won a bid to raise a 947-square-foot cottage on Bayou Grande Boulevard NE, the most flood-prone street in St. Petersburg.

In the past four decades, 52 houses on Bayou Grande have flooded at least twice, the Times analysis found.

The owner of the small bayfront home has applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would pay 75 percent of the elevation cost. The grant program is so little publicized and the application process so tedious that she was the only St. Petersburg resident to apply this year.

Statewide, 76 Florida home­owners applied for FEMA grants this year and are awaiting approval, which could take several months.

Even though his company stands to profit from the flood insurance crisis, Roesch is appalled by the potentially sky-high rates.

"What they're trying to do,'' he said, "is absurd.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]

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