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March 30, 2014

No easy fix on flood insurance, but options exist

NEW YORK — There’s no easy fix for the National Flood Insurance Program, now drowning in a $24 billion sea of red ink.

But experts and advocates say Congress does have some options that could make the troubled program financially stable, more affordable and more effective at motivating change in communities built too close to the water.

Lawmakers this month tweaked the troubled program for the second time in two years after acknowledging that a previous overhaul in 2012 had socked too many policyholders with rate hikes they couldn’t afford. The legislation, however, only put off the day of reckoning.

At least 1.1 million policyholders nationwide are still likely to see insurance premiums rise substantially in the next few years as the government whittles down rate subsidies for people in the riskiest flood zones. The Associated Press, in a story published Monday, found hundreds of river towns, port cities and coastal communities where future rate hikes might make it tough for people to keep their homes and businesses.

Yet, if premiums stay as low as they are now, those same communities could cost taxpayers billions of dollars when they do eventually flood, thanks to decades of low premiums that have given homeowners few incentives to flood-proof their properties.

Congress acknowledged the problem, but offered no solutions, in the stopgap measure signed by the president Friday. The law gives FEMA 18 months to complete an already-overdue study on flood insurance affordability and up to 36 months to find a way to offer targeted assistance to policyholders who can’t afford high premiums. It also said FEMA should set a goal of limiting annual premiums to no more than $2,500 per year for $250,000 in coverage, but didn’t offer any suggestions on how to do that without bankrupting a program that already charges far more than that for many policies.

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