Congress appears willing to head home for the holidays without doing a thing to correct the mess it created when it made sweeping changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. Homeowners now facing skyrocketing rates — or who can't sell their homes because the potential buyer would pay so much more — should hold their representatives and senators accountable for this manufactured crisis. This is a problem that won't go away just because Congress doesn't want to deal with it.
In last-ditch efforts to provide some immediate relief from the rates that went into effect Oct. 1 for older homes, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the Senate and House this week tried to use procedural moves to hit the pause button on the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act. They have failed so far, and the House is expected to adjourn later today for the holidays.
The inaction comes amid new questions about the veracity of flood maps drawn on the cheap and clear signs that changes to the flood insurance program are hurting real estate markets.
ProPublica reported last week that despite state and city requests, the Federal Emergency Management Agency saved money for decades by failing to update flood maps in the New York City area. The result: Homes allegedly not at risk were deluged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. That is the exact risk exposed when FEMA finally got around to releasing new maps in January drawn with up-to-date technology.
The national flood insurance program relies on those maps — some more recent than others — to set rates, including the new rates for older homes under Biggert-Waters. Under the law, owners of homes built before the flood map program began see their premium subsidies phased out over five years starting Oct. 1, but the subsidies will be removed immediately for any property sold after July 1, 2012.
The law's impact has been far more dramatic than anyone expected for insurance coverage that is capped at $250,000 for a structure and $100,000 for contents. It's put a vise grip on home sales in older neighborhoods for all but cash-only sales. Pinellas County, home to the nation's largest number of subsidized policies, saw a 5 percent drop in sales in October as flood insurance premiums increased as much as 10-fold for a new owner. The Tampa Bay Times reported one family saw a $4,300 annual flood insurance premium grow to $44,000 because the home's base floor sits below the so-called Base Flood Elevation of 13 feet — the height FEMA estimates waters would rise on the property in a 100-year-storm.
Yet in Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio (who hails from Miami-Dade, another county with a high portion of the nation's subsidized policies) has been largely silent on the issue along with eight fellow Republican House members from Florida. Rubio has said he doesn't want to undermine changes that were designed to reduce the flood insurance program's whopping deficit in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But what naysayers have refused to acknowledge is that the reforms they passed are hurting American families and the broader economy. The flood program needs to be reformed so it can remain a system that does not rely on taxpayer support, but it needs to be done without throwing thousands of families into the deep end.
The overwhelming majority of Florida's delegation, including Sen. Bill Nelson, supports hitting the pause button on Biggert-Waters. But Rubio and Republican Reps. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, Ted Yoho of Gainesville, Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville, Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, John Mica of Winter Park, Bill Posey of Rockledge, Daniel Webster of Orlando and Trey Radel of Fort Myers apparently remain unconvinced. Floridians should ask them just what they're going to do in the new year to fix the flood insurance crisis Congress created.