ST. LOUIS (AP) – In a western Illinois city that hustles out sandbags every time the Mississippi River acts up, Shawn McNett is among Quincy’s fortunate because he’s not required to have flood insurance for the three-story home he inherited years ago.
But now that it’s up for sale, McNett frets. Buyers don’t want to take on the insurance tab that’s about to rise like the Mississippi itself for millions of Americans.
Policyholders who have long-enjoyed subsidized rates under the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program will see premiums rise steadily in the coming years, despite a rate-relief law signed Friday by President Barack Obama that will soften the blow for those who were hit hardest.
For years, affordable flood insurance was offered for homes and businesses built before there were many rules about building close to the water. But premiums collected have fallen far short of the amount of payouts, putting the program $24 billion in debt. Congress pressed to change that in 2012, passing a law requiring 1.1 million policyholders to start paying rates based on the true risk of flooding at their properties.
But after public outcry, Congress scaled it back with legislation that would subject affected homeowners to annual premium increases as high as 18 percent until the government is collecting enough to pay out claims. Owners of businesses and second homes face mandatory increases of 25 percent each year in Illinois, that’s 4,000 policy holders until they start paying a rate based on the actual risk of flooding.
The fallout appears profound in Illinois, partly because of the state’s proximity to the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers and their tributaries.
An Associated Press analysis shows that half of the nearly 49,000 Illinois policies through the program are paying subsidized rates set to rise as those discounts are shaved or eliminated. Those affected include 20,000 holders of primary residential policies facing up to 18 percent increases, though exactly how much is murky. Illinoisans pay $44 million in premiums.
In 17,000-resident Westchester, west of Chicago, two creeks have been the local nuisance, accounting for two big floods in about four years. Of the village’s 341 subsidized policyholders, a whopping 75 percent face higher premiums.
“We understand the government doesn’t have any money. But if these houses are 50 to 60 years old and you’re adding this extra burden when they’re having problems just paying their water bill, how do you expect them to survive?” village president Sam Pulia said. “They might as well live in a park somewhere in a tent, and hopefully someone will bring them food. It’s just very sad.”
Back in Quincy, that’s McNett’s conundrum with the place he called home for seven years before relocating to Springfield, where he’s taken on a $100,000 mortgage. The 30-year-old father of two young sons didn’t anticipate having any trouble selling the three-bedroom, two-bathroom Quincy place that was briefly swamped last year by a nearby creek and in the Great Flood of 1993.
But the insurance issue has become an albatross.
“We had accepted an offer as soon as it got on the market, but they backed out when they found out about the flood insurance,” he said. “Now we’re stuck with two houses.”
That’s a combined $2,000 a month for both mortgages, leaving McNett and his wife weighing options that include anything from renting out the Quincy home or just letting the bank take it.
“It’s put quite a strain on us,” he said. “We just can’t make two house payments forever.”
Willie Richter has lived in the same house in West Alton since he was 10. Now the mayor of that small, blue-collar town nestled behind levees near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, wonders how much longer he’ll be able to stay.
Premiums through a federal flood insurance program are going up. Way up. Nearly everyone has the required flood insurance in West Alton, and nearly everyone is concerned.
“I pay around $2,000 a year now,” Richter, 44, said. “My assumption is it’s going to end up around $13,000. I’m going to get to a spot where I can’t afford it.”
After people who live in flood plains protested, President Barack Obama signed a law Friday putting the brakes on a 2012 overhaul that was supposed to end costly government subsidies for flood insurance. While the law offers instant relief for homeowners whose premiums soared by thousands of dollars overnight, the reprieve is temporary.
As many as 4,000 policyholders now paying subsidized rates in Missouri owners of second homes and businesses are going to face a 25 percent increase every year until their premiums reach rates based on actual flood risks. Rates for about 6,900 other policyholders, many of them homeowners who live near the rivers, will see rate jumps, too, though how much isn’t certain.
Many people who live in the flood plain are poor or on fixed income. Dropping insurance isn’t an option for most because banks require mortgage holders to have flood insurance. Selling the property and relocating is problematic, too, as real estate experts and homeowners wonder who’d buy property that costs so much to insure.
West Alton residents including Richter and Patrick Brass don’t want to move out. They like living near the scenic rivers, where fishing is easy, the eagles come to nest in the winter and the barges chug by.
“If this goes through, we’ll pretty much eventually lose the house,” said Brass, who received a letter saying the flood insurance premium on his $150,000 home was expected to rise to $11,000 from $2,000 annually.
“You’re kind of in a pickle,” said Brass, who has a wife and four children. “Almost a grand a month who can afford that?”
Most people who saw dramatic increases in rates like the Brass family are set to have those rates rolled back for now under the law signed Friday, which delays or sets aside parts of the 2012 law that required anyone who bought property in a flood zone to be subject immediately to a risk-based rate. For some, that relief will be permanent, while others will face annual increases of up to 18 percent. Experts say no one knows for sure how high the rates could go.
The National Flood Insurance Program is $24 billion in debt. Critics say that’s largely due to rates that don’t match the risk, and that reform is necessary.
John Hark, emergency management coordinator in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Mo., recalled that after the record-breaking flood of 1993 people living in the flood plain were encouraged to buy the insurance, in part because of its low cost.
“Now, to have them penalized because of a change in the way the game’s played it just seems wrong to me,” Hark said.
Blake Foster has no plans to leave the flood plain. Foster, 66, bought a home along the Mississippi River near Annada, about 70 miles north of St. Louis, nearly a decade ago. Situated atop a large concrete garage, the living quarters sit 4 feet above the 1993 flood level. His grandkids fish from the banks and Foster and his wife, Nancy, have a picture-perfect view of a nearby island.
People with elevated living areas will generally still qualify for cheap rates. Foster doesn’t yet know how much he’ll have to pay, but on his fixed retirement income, he’s worried.
“It’s not fair how much they charge,” Foster said. “It’s so expensive already.”
So expensive that Richter wonders how many neighbors will simply pack up and head out.
“We’re going to have a town with a lot of empty homes,” Richter said.
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