NEW PORT RICHEY — More than 200 Pasco County residents crowded into City Hall on Wednesday to vent to a FEMA official about flood insurance rates so high that some worried they might have to declare bankruptcy.
"What are you trying to do, drive everybody out of the state?" New Port Richey resident JoAnn McMahon asked of Susan Wilson, chief of the agency's floodplain management and insurance branch. "Because the way things are going we're going to end up a sandbar with nobody living here."
The meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and originally set for 90 minutes had to be extended an hour as scores of residents lined up to complain about soaring premiums under the National Flood Insurance Program.
FEMA, which administers the program, has come under fire since the summer when Florida residents living in flood zones started getting notices about rates jumping 500, 600, even 900 percent.
Because of huge payouts after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy, Congress passed the 2012 Biggert-Waters act to curb subsidies to homeowners enrolled in the program. The legislation, aimed at keeping the flood program solvent, had the unintended result of causing insurance rates to skyrocket. About 270,000 are affected in Florida — a so-called donor state that has paid four times more in premiums than what it has gotten back in claims.
Wilson, the FEMA official, blamed sections of Biggert-Waters for the soaring rates now. She also told homeowners their higher premiums could be due to the elevation and location of their homes within flood zones.
Frank Furman, a contractor who lives in Gulf Harbors in New Port Richey, shook his head and said he couldn't understand how his rates jumped from $4,000 a year to more than $27,900.
Another Gulf Harbors resident, William Broschart, said he hoped to sell his house and move to a condo, but now because of a $33,000 annual premium, he can't find prospective buyers. Never mind, he said, that he has never submitted a flood claim — even after a 1993 storm ravaged Pasco but came nowhere near to flooding his house.
"It's impossible to sell," he said.
Bilirakis, who voted for Biggert-Waters, said he and others in Congress were told rates would increase $200 to $400 annually as the subsidies phased out over five years. He sponsored legislation this summer to delay or curb the increases but couldn't muster enough votes. He plans to reintroduce the legislation next year, he said.
Meanwhile at the state level, a Senate bill filed Tuesday would try to reduce rates by inviting private insurers to the state and creating a new regulatory system.
Many residents said they left the meeting feeling they had no more answers than when they walked in. Mike Westney of Hudson said he didn't know what to do after learning his rates had risen to $20,400 on his $252,000 home. The new $1,700 monthly premium eclipsed even his $1,500-a-month mortgage. Eventually, he landed a policy backed by Lloyd's of London for $9,300 a year. "You're crazy if you think I'm paying 10 times as much for flood insurance," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com.