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April 2, 2014

Flood insurance premiums swamp some homeowners

Few impacted in Whitfield and Murray counties

— In the span of a year, Wanda Drury saw the bill for flood insurance on her home overlooking the coastal marshes of Glynn County increase an astounding tenfold, from $674 a year to more than $6,700.

It was enough money that the retired widow applied for a bank loan to cover the bill for insuring her 1,400-square-foot Cape Cod-style house on Blythe Island just west of Brunswick. Although President Barack Obama recently signed a law to roll back some rate increases meant to shore up the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, thousands of Georgia homeowners like Drury can count on paying increasing flood insurance premiums each year — though perhaps less than they originally feared.

Locally, the number of people who will be impacted is relatively small. According to Associated Press data, just 37 properties in Whitfield County receive discounted flood insurance and just nine in Murray County receive it.

Whitfield County Building Inspector Greg Williams said there are two reasons why those local numbers are so small. First, local governments have had in place for several decades zoning rules that discourage building in flood zones. Second, he said, flood insurance is required by banks when a mortgage is taken out on a property in a flood zone. But those who don’t have a mortgage on their property and take the risk can go without such insurance.

The numbers are much higher in other Georgia counties.

Bob Coleman, Drury’s insurance agent and a Glynn County commissioner, said she’s far from alone. Roughly 2,000 permanent home and 160 business owners who participate in the flood insurance program in parts of Glynn County will have to pay higher rates to stay covered. And Coleman said he’s still not sure what to tell his insurance clients asking who will get a break and who won’t.

“I’m just kind of treading water, to be candid,” Coleman said.

Drury, a retired phone company customer service rep, lived in her home without flood insurance for nearly a decade until her husband died four years ago and she took out a home-equity loan to help pay for expenses. The bank required her to buy flood insurance, but she says she let the policy lapse a little more than a year ago to make room for other bills. Drury signed up for a new flood policy this year, and the sticker shock still stings.

“I like to have died,” Drury said. “I said, ‘Where do they think I’m going to come up with $6,700? It’s all I can do to keep on living.’”

Congress voted in 2012 to phase out taxpayer subsidies for flood insurance on homes and businesses built in high-risk flood zones. But howls of protest from affected constituents caused lawmakers to back off many of the harshest provisions, or at least blunt the financial pain. Under the revisions, people like Drury who bought a new policy in 2012 or early 2013 on a previously subsidized home and saw soaring increases should see the lower, subsidized rates restored and get a refund for any excessive amount they’ve already paid.

Still, like other permanent resident owners, homeowners such as Drury will still see their premiums rise up to 18 percent a year under the Senate revisions, which rolled back previously approved annual hikes of 20 percent. Others who find themselves in high-risk flood areas because of retooled maps are spared immediate premium increases. And people who recently purchased homes were exempted from instant rate increases.

The Associated Press review of federal data shows roughly 18 percent of Georgia home or business owners covered by flood insurance will pay higher premiums. Annual increases could be as high as 18 percent for about 13,200 primary homeowners and no less than 25 percent for more than 4,600 vacation home or businesses owners.

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said he worries higher premiums will hurt the coastal real estate market.

“We’ve talked to people who had premiums of $500 a year and then were handed a bill for $12,000,” Hudgens said. “That’s kind of hard to swallow.”

And though communities along Georgia’s 100-mile coast have the highest percentage of policyholders facing premium increases, many others are far from the hurricane-prone coastline. Federal data show property owners from metro Atlanta to Albany and from Rome to the shores of Lake Blackshear in rural Crisp County will pay substantially more for flood insurance as well.

It’s not clear yet how the Federal Emergency Management Agency will implement the increases.

The city of Albany was severely flooded by the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers in July 1994 as Tropical Storm Alberto dumped more than two feet of rain in some parts of southwest and central Georgia. The flooding affected 55 of Georgia’s 159 counties, and killed 31 people and left more than $350 million in damage. Jamye Cobb, a real estate agent in Albany and spokeswoman for the Albany Board of Realtors, said a home’s flooding risk often is one of potential buyers’ first questions in the river-centric city. The board is urging sellers to have their homes surveyed, an expense of about $400, to get more accurate flood insurance rates.

Nearly 700 Albany owners will see annual premium increases until the national program is collecting enough revenue to cover a $24 billion shortfall. That’s 47 percent of all flood insurance policyholders in the city.

“We’re encouraging them to be proactive and get it upfront because it has to be done before an insurance agent can even give a rate,” Cobb said.

In coastal Brunswick, homeowner Paul Schaffer is trying to figure out how much more it makes sense for him to pay in flood insurance on his house. Though he lives roughly a half-mile from the marsh, his flood insurance bill already shot up from $1,000 in 2010 to $2,500 last year. Since he lived in a pre-existing flood zone, he suspects his next bill will add another 18 percent — bringing his premium close to $3,000.

“I’m retired and basically on a fixed income, so it’s a significant chunk of change,” said Schaffer, a retired federal government worker who’s owned his home since 1991.

He said if his premium tops $3,200, it will equal about a third of his annual mortgage payment.

“I don’t have a problem with paying my way,” Schaffer said. “But at some point it just becomes financially impossible.”

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