Communities, homeowners navigate flood insurance compliance

A couple are rescued by their neighbors from their house in the LAM Development in Wolf Township outside Hughesville, Sept. 7, 2011. Little Muncy Creek broke its banks and flooded the development outside Hughesville after a day of heavy rain. (Dave Kennedy/For the Sun-Gazette)

ope for the best, but expect the worst, the Lycoming County planning department forewarns homeowners of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s impending but unknown changes to the National Flood Insurance Program.

The agency is reaching out nationwide, seeing how communities are enforcing floodplain ordinances and how homeowners are complying with those, said Fran McJunkin, deputy planner.

“They want people to begin taking more responsibility for their actions,” she said.

But what actions have people been taking, and what should they change?

“Property owners can’t just keep putting things back the way they were,” McJunkin said, “and municipalities have got to enforce their ordinances.”

Municipalities and even individual homeowners who do not comply with the National Flood Insurance Program regulations could get kicked out, said Chelsea Blair, hazard mitigation planner.

“FEMA can check in at anytime,” she said, “and, if you’re not in the NFIP, private insurance can suspend coverage as well.”

In the past, homeowners have repaired their flood-damaged homes by returning them to the state they were in pre-flood, likely for cost-saving reasons. But that potential cost-savings may be shortsighted.

Floods keep happening and they’re getting bigger — flood insurance premiums have skyrocketed, McJunkin said.

“Why do people want to put so much money into their home just for it to be damaged?” she asked. “We have to be rebels. We have to do things differently.”

Instead, homeowners should invest in floodproofing their homes. Lift them, or at least the utilities, above the base flood elevation, get water-resistant flooring and base boards and move outlets up, for example.

“It will make long-term costs much lower,” McJunkin said.

“And there will be less damage,” Blair added.

In some cases, homeowners make the effort to lift their homes above the base flood elevation, but either don’t properly ventilate it or leave utilities at ground level, effectively nullifying the advantages elevating normally would bring, McJunkin said.

For every foot above the base flood elevation a home is, insurance rates go down, and vice versa, she said.

However, even if a home is elevated, if there are utilities at the base level or other criteria not met, insurance policies will consider the entire home to be at ground-level, she said.

Interactive maps on the county’s website are a useful tool to help homeowners visuals their and surrounding properties and can be accessed via the planning department’s hazard mitigation page at www.lyco.org/Departments/Planning-and-Community-Development/Hazard-Mitigation.

If homeowners don’t get water in their homes during flooding events but the maps show them to be in a floodplain, they could look into getting a letter of map amendment, known as a LOMA, which is an official letter from FEMA acknowledging a property as out of the floodplain, Blair said.

The amendment is another tool for lowering insurance costs.

“We are very happy to talk to anybody who wants to know about their property,” McJunkin said. “We recommend everybody carry insurance but, with a LOMA, they can pay the price of being out (of the floodplain).”

With the insurance itself, it’s important for buyers to be educated about what they’re purchasing, McJunkin said.

Selecting the cheapest plan may barely cover the depreciated value of your belongings, costing you more in the long run than if you’d purchased a more expensive plan, she said.

“I’ve heard from people that flood insurance only pays pennies on the dollar, but that’s because they’re only insuring pennies on the dollar,” she said.

While FEMA promises changes, what those changes will be is a mystery, McJunkin said.

“We just know if people keep doing the same things we’ve always done, it’s not going to be less expensive,” she said.

Blair suggested insurance costs, which average between $1,000 and $3,000 per year, could skyrocket when the agency switches from subsidized to actuarial rates in October 2020.

“Insurance rates right now may be $1,000 to $3,000 (per year). We can look at flood insurance rates (increasing to) $9,000 to $12,000,” she said at a recent seminar on the topic.

“We need to start taking control of what happens to us,” McJunkin said. “Know your risks.”