WHEELING - When Jeremy Shepherd moved back to New Martinsville from San Diego in 2011, he couldn't help but notice that things seemed to be looking up in his hometown, suddenly near the epicenter of the natural gas drilling boom.
Shepherd and his wife, Sarah, bought a house there, with thoughts of starting a family. Before long, he opened his mail to learn the $2,500 per year he thought he'd be paying for flood insurance had ballooned to $7,600.
He now pays more per month for flood insurance than he pays on his mortgage - and those plans to start a family are on hold indefinitely.
"Things were beginning to come back to life because of the oil and gas industry. ... With this, I'll have no choice. I'll have to move somewhere else," Shepherd said.
Shepherd was one of several people who met with West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in Wheeling on Tuesday to discuss the local impact of flood insurance premium increases under the Biggert Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012. Tennant is running for a U.S. Senate seat.
The measure is intended to shore up the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program, which has racked up $25 billion in debt, most of it related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"You're just going to have a bunch of abandoned homes. And what do abandoned homes invite?" Tennant said.
For current homeowners who are "grandfathered" in, premiums may rise up to 20 percent annually until they reach "full-risk" rates. For grandfathered commercial and rental property, the increase may be up to 25 percent per year. However, new policy holders and those who have let their policies lapse will have to pay full-risk premiums immediately.
Tucked into a bill that included funding for transportation and veterans' benefits, the Biggert-Waters Act overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress. Those casting votes for the bill included Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; and Tennant's likely opponent in this year's U.S. Senate race, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Manchin, McKinley, Rahall and Johnson all are now co-sponsors of various pieces of legislation that would delay implementation of the law to allow FEMA to perform an "affordability study" that was supposed to have been completed before Biggert-Waters took effect. Capito has said she favors a fix that would shore up the National Flood Insurance Program "without further stressing a weak housing market," though she is not listed as a co-sponsor of any of the pending legislation.
Others participating in Tuesday's roundtable discussion included local insurance agent Chad Broadwater and real estate agent Missy Ashmore, Wheeling Housing Authority Executive Director Randall Geese and Wheeling resident Steve Novotney.
Ashmore said she and many of her colleagues initially supported Biggert-Waters, which provided for a five-year extension for the NFIP, a seemingly welcome change from a series of short-term extensions that fostered uncertainty in the real estate market. But they had no idea what was coming, she said.
According to Ashmore, it now costs $8,000 per year to obtain $60,000 of coverage for a property on Wheeling Island. And another client lost a deal to sell property when the buyer learned they'd have to spend $6,000 per year to insure it even though only a small corner of the garage lies within the flood zone.
Ashmore agrees a delay in premium hikes is essential for property owners like Shepherd to get some relief. But a temporary delay, she said, will not encourage people to buy homes which they still may have to pay thousands to insure a few years down the road.
"Until we have a final plan, no one's going to buy or sell in a flood plain," Ashmore said.
If landlords are forced to increase rent to compensate for higher flood premiums, Geese said, the impact to the local rental market will be devastating for low-income residents already reeling from the influx of natural gas workers willing to pay top-dollar for apartments that once were in their price range.
"If rent goes up, where are my voucher-holders going to go?" Geese said.
Tennant asked attendees what they believe should be done about the issue.
Broadwater believes the problem is that the FEMA flood maps fail to distinguish accurately between low-risk and truly flood-prone properties. He pointed out vehicle insurance premiums are based on a number of variables, including the type of car, how much it's driven and its owner's driving record, just to name a few.
"There's three flood zones in the whole country," Broadwater said. "Whether you're in Texas, New Jersey, West Virginia, you're in one of three flood zones."
Tennant said it's important to address the issues faced by property owners as a result of Biggert-Waters while also finding a way to get the NFIP on solid financial footing.
"We need FEMA. We needed them last week," Tennant said, referring to the agency's delivery of bottled water during the water crisis in Charleston and surrounding communities caused by a chemical leak into the Elk River. "We need them to be strong."