Poll: Opposition to flood insurance rate hikes is strong

Published Dec. 25, 2013

Living on high ground in Brandon, David Noll doesn't worry about flooding.

"It would probably take a pretty whopping hurricane" to cause flood damage in his neighborhood, he figures.

Nevertheless, he thinks some flood insurance rate hikes taking effect now are ridiculous, particularly when someone buys an older home in a flood zone and finds out later the annual flood premiums are jumping from a few thousand dollars to $15,000 or more.

"Times are tough for everybody right now," said Noll, 29, who owns a car detailing business. "It's hard to ask someone to pull out another $10,000 or $12,000. … There should be a limit what they can charge."

Noll speaks for the majority, according to a new Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News poll.

Whether they live in Hillsborough County or Pinellas County, whether they live in homes that were losing lower, subsidized flood rates or not, a clear majority of registered voters polled earlier this month oppose the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood rate hikes that started earlier this year.

Only 13 percent of those surveyed said those in flood zones should pay the increased rates. About 10 percent suggest the increases be phased in over a longer period to lessen the impact. Most respondents, 65 percent, want the government to come up with a new way to make the flood insurance program financially sound.

About 25 percent of those quizzed thought they were affected by the new law; 59 percent said they weren't affected; and 16 percent weren't sure.

But that made little difference in their opinion. Only nine percent of respondents affected by the flood rate hikes said they approved of FEMA's actions. Among those residents not affected directly, just 15 percent supported marching forward with the rate hikes. The majority of both groups said the government should try a different approach.

The trigger for the rate increases was the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, a law passed by Congress intended to keep the National Flood Insurance Program afloat. At the time, the NFIP was swamped with losses from Hurricane Katrina, forcing it to borrow nearly $18 billion from the U.S. Treasury.

To help the flood program's finances, FEMA is eliminating subsidies for older homes in flood-prone areas that have benefited from lower rates for decades. For many, rates are increasing about 20 percent a year; in some cases, like a home sale, the subsidy is being stripped immediately.

Florida has paid four times more into the flood program in premiums than it has received back the past 35 years through claim payouts. Despite that, the state, which has 40 percent of all federal flood policies, is bearing the brunt of the rate hikes. Pinellas County has about 50,000 properties targeted to lose their subsidized rates, more than any other county in the nation.

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"I feel like we're subsidizing the rest of the country, and I don't think it's fair," said Wade Hoy, 69. "Last year, they had a terrible flood in Colorado. You think all those people were paying flood insurance?"

He suggests FEMA phase in any rate hikes slowly until it can redraw its flood maps nationwide, figure out what's fair, and make more people across the country pay into the flood program.

Hoy, who lives in a waterfront home on a street called Paradise off Coquina Key in St. Petersburg, is bracing for a big jump in flood premiums. "If it got too nasty," he said, "I'd pay my house off and not buy insurance."

Eileen Wilkinson moved into her home in Seminole Heights 28 years ago, in part because it sits on one of the highest elevations in Hillsborough County.

Yet, she worries about the rate hike hitting others in modest homes that happen to be in a flood zone.

"I feel sorry for people who have been in their houses a long time," said Wilkinson, who turns 80 in February. "I'm a widow. I can understand older people in older homes trying to make it work with Social Security checks or whatever might come in."

As for those who live in nice homes on the water and knew what could happen, "I really don't feel badly for them," she said.

Shannon Williams, 47, who lives in an apartment in South Tampa, initially said he supported the rate hikes, figuring it did not affect him.

But after taking the poll, he acknowledged conflicting feelings. Like Wilkinson, he supports making a distinction between raising rates for people near the water who knew the risk and raising rates for less expensive homes inland.

"They should be judged on the area where they live and their income," said Williams, who described himself as a street minister. "If it will cause them to lose their homes, they need to think" twice about raising the rates.

Judy Vargas is a newcomer to Tampa Bay on a short-term assignment with the Department of Defense. She moved to an apartment in Pinellas Park in July and, as a renter, has little exposure to the flood insurance saga.

But she's heard enough to know people are being hurt. "I think the government should (continue to) subsidize it," she said.

Vargas, 54, said she was at one point thinking about coming back to retire in Tampa Bay. Hearing anecdotes about soaring flood insurance made her rethink her golden years.

"After that came out, I said, 'Bump that idea,' " she said.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or