Flood Insurance Burden Shifting to Waterfront Homeowners

Sep 10, 2020

A barge glides by residential properties on the Rappahannock River in Essex County.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Throughout Virginia, communities are facing down climate change.

A common symptom - more frequent flooding of their homes. A common fix – state and federal funding.

But it’s not easy to get and the National Flood Insurance Program is shifting the burden to those willing to take the risk of living close to the water.

In one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public fact sheets is a simple sentence: “FEMA is not empowered to make you whole.” Translation:  If you lose your $350,000 house in a flood, the maximum FEMA flood insurance payout is $250,000 for your house and $100,000 for what’s in it.

For homeowners living at the highest risk next to water, premiums cost the most. Just ask Teresa Moore, a real estate agent who’s using a FEMA grant to elevate her house on the Rappahannock River in Essex County.  It's a fix that will bring down her premium and increase the value of her house.  "Well, it’s a little harder to sell houses that have $6,000 a year flood insurance than $1,000. Big difference," Moore admits.

FEMA grants help pay for home elevations like Moore’s or to buy out a homeowner on a property battered by recurring flooding. Homeowners have to get their locality to apply for them. That’s where Debbie Messmer comes in. She’s Virginia’s manager for Hazard Mitigation Grants. Like many, her yardstick storm is Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  "Early on we did a lot of acquisitions. We didn’t do as many elevations. And then when Isabel hit we started really focusing on acquisitions and on elevation."

Big storms like Isabel mean big hits to the National Flood Insurance Program. And FEMA’s flood risk assessments are outdated and not always accurate, so not everyone knew they needed insurance. Now, FEMA is reworking its numbers to consider climate change and flood threats to each home. That will increase premiums for waterfront homeowners in the flood plain.  "It’s important to note that especially the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, the whole basis of that program is to reduce the losses that the National Flood Insurance Program is taking," Messmer says. "To reduce the number of claims."

Teresa Moore and two of her neighbors are paying 25 percent of the $175,000 cost to elevate their houses. FEMA pays the other 75 percent. Her neighbor’s house being elevated is a vacation cottage. That raised some eyebrows.  "Of course that is a question we get often," Debbie Messmer admits. "I will say this, so in order to reduce those claims they really have to open it up and make sure they’re keeping it true to any type of structure because the whole point is to reduce the burden on the National Flood Insurance Program."

What is a 100 year flood?

To that end, last month, FEMA announced an overhaul of one of its pre-disaster mitigation programs to fund resilience projects for whole communities like the city of Staunton that needs stormwater updates and neighborhoods in Hampton Roads that can use living shorelines to stem flooding.

But the federal grant process is long and demanding and hard on local budgets. Homeowners want quick fixes. Just ask Essex County, Building Official Wyn Davis about Fort Lowry adjacent to Moore’s neighborhood. Most were rebuilt and elevated after Isabel damage.  "A lot of those home permits were obtained rather quickly and people began rebuilding and I don’t think a lot of thought has been put into it," Davis says.

The week before this interview Davis was called in by neighboring Lancaster County to inspect damage to homes, some destroyed, when an EF-2 tornado spun off from Hurricane Isaias.

Many building codes have tightened since Isabel, which hit Virginia as a tropical storm. Locals will tell you Virginia has so far dodged the big one.  "I’m hoping we won’t have that storm but we all know it’s just a matter of when," Davis predicts.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.