Brooke County, city urge action on flood insurance

WELLSBURG – City Council made plans Tuesday to urge federal lawmakers to address rising flood insurance rates, echoing a move made earlier that day by the Brooke County Commission.

Council instructed City Manager Mark Henne to draft a resolution on its behalf urging West Virginia’s representatives in Congress to repeal the Biggert-Waters Act.

The act was passed by Congress in 2012 to help the National Flood Insurance Program to overcome billions of dollars in claims filed by home and business owners affected by such major disasters as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

The program, which is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is said to be in debt by more than $25 billion. Because of the costs, most insurance providers don’t offer flood insurance, so the program was established in 1968 and many of the policies have been subsidized by the government.

Second Ward Councilman Paul T. Billiard said by raising flood insurance rates, the law was aimed at people who build million dollar homes on the coasts, then seek federal aid when they are destroyed by hurricanes. But he said Congress didn’t take into account that impact raising the rates would have on property owners in small communities where flooding seldom results in loss of homes and other buildings.

Billiard said some property owners could face rate hikes of 20 percent every year until they meet the level FEMA deems adequate to address risks.

Mayor Sue Simonetti said in most cases, flooding is more of a nuisance than a threat to residents in Wellsburg’s flood zone and it’s unfair to lump them with owners of coastal property.

City Manager Mark Henne noted U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and others have introduced legislation to delay and alter the law.

If approved, the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act would delay the rate hikes by four years and require FEMA to complete an insurance affordability study that was required by the Biggert-Waters Act.

Manchin said the law would allow time to find more solutions for the financially strapped flood insurance program. But Henne and other city officials said damage already has been done, as the insurance cost has deterred a potential buyer of a vacant business and many already have paid high premiums.

City Solicitor Bill Cipriani said some have sold their property for much less than its worth because of the insurance cost attached. Concerns also have been expressed about property owners to sell their homes at all.

Fourth Ward Councilman Charles Harris said the concerns aren’t limited to Wellsburg, and that means they can join others in voicing opposition.

“It’s not a Wellsburg thing. It’s a national thing,” he said. “It looks like there will be some modification to it, but we should speak up. Everybody who will be affected should speak up.”

Simonetti noted the Brooke County Commission on Tuesday signed a resolution on the issue to be sent to Manchin, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling.

In it, county Commissioners Tim Ennis, Jim Andreozzi and Norma Tarr said they understand the need to shore up the flood insurance program in light of the many claims following Katrina, Sandy and other disasters. “We are distressed to see our in-land constituents, many of whom are still reeling from the economic downturn and housing crisis, lose thousands of their hard-earned dollars in either new or increased flood insurance premiums.”

They noted the Biggert-Waters Act was intended as a reform of the flood insurance program and called for an affordability study not yet completed.

The commissioners state, “Given the significant financial burden this reform places on many of our citizens and businesses, we firmly believe that further implementation should be delayed until a financial analysis is complete.”

“Granting such a delay would allow the government time to identify protections for homeowners who may face financial hardship and foreclosure,” they said.

Ennis said while flood insurance is optional, many must have it to be eligible for mortgage loans.