By Michael Hartwell
LANCASTER -- Some communities are experiencing large increases in flood-insurance premiums, but public officials are divided when asked if those costs will flow to North Central Massachusetts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency runs the National Flood Insurance Program, which allows property owners to purchase flood insurance as long as their municipal government adopts building ordinances and zoning guidelines set by FEMA.
To determine relative flooding risks, FEMA maintains flood-insurance rate maps that show which areas are prone to flooding. High-risk areas also receive higher insurance premiums to compensate for the increased odds of flood damage.
Dennis Pinkham, spokesman for Boston-based Region 1 of FEMA, said there are two factors that can change the premiums people pay for flood insurance:
* Congress instructed FEMA to make flood maps more accurate last July and
* Congress passed reforms to the flood-insurance program intended to stop it from losing money.
Under the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, subsidies are being phased out for the second homes of people on coastal property or in the flood zone. Premiums are also expected to increase for people in areas at risk of floods.
"Real problems have emerged in many communities," said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. "The maps are being changed substantially, and homeowners are facing significant and extremely burdensome increases in their insurance costs."
Rocco Longo, town administrator of the coastal town of Marshfield, said issues related to premium increases have been dominating his work load every day since August.
"It's pretty traumatic for many people," said Longo. He said 1,300 houses and 95 businesses were added to the flood plain and now need flood insurance.
"Some of these houses aren't on the coast, some of them are miles inland," said Longo.
He said premiums vary wildly from property to property, but the most dramatic example he has seen is the owner of a $800,000 home who used to pay $4,000 annually for flood insurance and now has to pay $68,000 annually.
While the government doesn't force people to participate in the insurance program, Longo said people who are still paying a mortgage are required to get it from their bank.
He has seen seniors pilfer their retirement accounts to pay off their mortgages to avoid flood insurance.
"Others said they're going to drop their keys in the door and just go," he said.
Pinkham said the project to re-map the flood plains was not motivated to find ways to increase premiums, but to get accurate information.
"Those two topics are not related," said Pinkham. "Some of these maps were very outdated."
He said buildings and other structures may have been introduced or removed that would change the flooding dynamics in an area.
"What we're really trying to do is to tell states and communities what their risk is now," he said. He said it is unknown if the mapping alone would increase or decrease future flood payments from FEMA.
"It can alter the hazard areas. It may take some businesses and dwellings out of the flood areas, but it may add more," he said.
FEMA engineer Kerry Bogdan said the map-update project will not re-map the flood plains of the entire country or the entire state. She said the national effort will include every populated coastline.
"As for inland, we're doing projects as we have the budget to do," she said.
A local re-mapping project is the Concord Watershed, which includes Lancaster. Bogdan said maps used to be done on a community-by-community basis and some of the maps in use are from the mid to late 1980s.
To map an area, FEMA uses a LIDAR system, which stands for "light detection and ranging." To measure ground elevation, Bogdan explained that small aircraft shoot lasers down to the earth and measure how long it takes them to bounce back. The process is similar to sonar, but uses light instead of sound.
She said it is not as simple as saying all land below a certain elevation is at risk of flooding. There are further calculations used to consider the flood area, including the absorbency of the terrain and local features.
"Structures like culverts and bridges are taken into account in the modeling," said Bogdan.
She said they have installed sensors in different bodies of water to gauge water levels before and after rainstorms, such as the Concord River. She said this is superior to relying on anecdotal reports. The Concord project is expected to be completed by next year, and the changes will go into regulatory building permit rules and insurance rates around July 2014.
Lancaster Town Planner Noreen Piazza said she received a letter Feb. 6 from FEMA saying there would be no changes to the flood plain in Lancaster. They updated their maps two years before. She said she does not anticipate any big changes to premium rates in the area either.
Marcia Rasmussen, director of planning and land management in Concord, said the changes to Concord homes in the flood were minor.
"There were maybe a handful of people impacted negatively," she said. Due to the town's inland position, Rasmussen said she is not concerned that residents with only a single piece of property will see a premium increase.
Aaron Clausen, Lowell's senior planner, said he is not sure what will happen to premium rates in the city. He said the important thing to keep in mind is that Congress wants the flood-insurance program to be self-sustaining.
"We're not entirely sure how it's going to be applied," said Clausen. "And I don't think FEMA knows what it will do either."
He said phasing out the subsidy to people with second homes was a logical place to start, as they tend to have more money, but he is not sure if flood insurance subsidies will be phased out for long-time residents in the flood plain. As for the re-mapping project, he said Lowell saw a reduction in the number of properties that are in the flood plain.
Beckwith wants to see a delay in the implementation of the new premiums. The entire Massachusetts Senate and House delegations have supported a delay to give more time for homeowners to contest premium increases
"Congress did not anticipate that the updating of maps would have such an impact on home owners," said Beckwith, adding that he would also like to see communities get money and other resources for technical assistance to challenge the increases.
Pinkham said FEMA does not have the authority to change the implementation deadline and any money for technical assistance would have to come from a state or federal source other than FEMA. He added that communities already had time to contest the changes built into the implementation schedule.
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