Lawmakers Seek to Delay Flood Insurance Law

WHEELING – For Tom and Norma Dorsch, life on Wheeling Island means looking out the back door to see the downtown lights shimmering on the Ohio River, and knowing a relaxing evening on the water is just a short walk across the backyard.

They wouldn’t have it any other way, even if the river does occasionally rise from its banks, creeping into their basement and backing up their drains.

But if some in the federal government have anything to say about it, the way of life that the Dorsches and others on the Island enjoy soon could become much more expensive and even impossible to maintain.

More than a year and a half after the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012 became law, phasing out lower, “subsidized” flood insurance premiums under the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program, many legislators who voted for the bill – including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. – are experiencing a measure of buyer’s remorse. Manchin and McKinley are now pushing legislation to delay the law’s consequences in hopes of developing a more affordable alternative.

Proponents of Biggert-Waters say subsidized premiums mask the true risks of living in a flood zone and force taxpayers to support wealthy property owners in coastal areas. But as many in the Ohio Valley are finding out, the Biggert-Waters Act also targets many neighborhoods where the risk of flooding is present, but at a level nowhere near that in coastal communities.

In Ohio County alone, it’s been estimated that one-fourth of all properties will be impacted by the law.

Under Biggert-Waters, those with flood insurance who continue to live in their homes could see annual premium increases of up to 20 percent until they reach “full-risk” rates, while commercial properties will see annual premium increases of up to 25 percent until they reach full-risk rates.

However, the full-risk rates – which can be up to 15 times as high as what owners are currently paying, according to local insurance professionals – kick in immediately for any new policies. This is making it very difficult to buy or sell a home in an affected area because federal law requires mortgage holders to obtain flood insurance in an amount equal, at minimum, to the value of their loan.

Tom Dorsch worries about what the new law will do to neighborhoods such as Wheeling Island if Congress doesn’t act.

“It’s going to ruin real estate. … Nobody’s going to be able to afford to buy these homes,” he said.

Stephanie Hall, who is president of the Island Community Association, finds the situation frustrating. She believes it represents another obstacle as she and others try to improve conditions in the neighborhood.

“The concern that I have now is that we have so many empty homes on the Island,” Hall said. “How are people going to buy them and get a loan, fix them up and then pay for this high price on the flood insurance? … We’re going to have a lot more empty houses, is what’s going to happen.”

The impact will be felt by businesses, as well.

Jim Frio, who owns Frio and Associates auction service and Island Pawn Brokers on North Broadway Street, said he doesn’t carry flood insurance because he owns his building outright and isn’t required to do so. However, he knows it will be much more difficult if the time ever comes to sell the building, though he doesn’t have any plans to do so any time soon.

Were he looking today for a building in which to set up shop, he added, the flood insurance issue would play a huge role in his decision on where to locate.

“If I didn’t own that building. … Wheeling Island wouldn’t even be in my thought process,” Frio said. “That’s our government for you.”

One of Frio’s employees, Craig Bozik, also believes local residents are being hit harder by the premium increases than they should. He sees a possible uptick in business at the pawn shop as the new rates are implemented.

“When folks need money, this is one of the first places they come to,” he said.

A short distance away on South Broadway Street, Pete Chiazza has operated Pete’s Gun Shop for the past 17 years. In that time, his store has only flooded once, he said – in September 2004, when he got 7 inches of water.

He rents the space and doesn’t pay for flood insurance, but he acknowledged if premiums on the building increase, his rent could do the same. Like many on Wheeling Island, he believes inland areas such as the Ohio Valley are being unfairly targeted.

“That’s what it boils down to, and it isn’t right,” Chiazza said.

Affected homeowners and businesses who are looking to Congress for a reprieve were dealt a major setback this past week. Speaker John Boehner said the House wouldn’t take up legislation expected to pass through the Democrat-controlled Senate that calls for a four-year delay in premium increases.

Boehner, R-Ohio, didn’t rule out a more modest delay under legislation introduced in the House, but the bill remains stalled in the Financial Services Committee, whose chairman, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, is an outspoken supporter of Biggert-Waters.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate legislation – known as the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act – would reduce income to the NFIP by $2.1 billion over the next decade. The program already is more than $24 billion in debt, most of it racked up since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Friday contains a temporary reprieve for some property owners, delaying premium increases until at least Oct. 1 by cutting funding to FEMA to enforce the higher rates. But some estimates show it would only affect about 25 percent of NFIP policyholders.