When Catherine Porthouse bought a home in 2010 in the bayous of Louisiana, she didn’t worry much about the possibility of flood damage. Her house, in the town of Des Allemands, is shielded by marshlands and a levee and had no history of problems. Flood insurance wasn’t required, but she purchased a policy just in case.
In March, Porthouse got a rude surprise. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced at a town meeting that it had rewritten the state’s flood maps and added her house and hundreds of others to Louisiana’s flood zone. She was told she’ll have to raise her house 8 feet into the air and fill in the space beneath it. If she doesn’t, her yearly flood insurance bill will jump from $388 to $18,000. “I left in tears,” Porthouse says.
Homeowners in all 350 coastal counties nationwide will soon receive similar shocks as FEMA moves ahead with a sweeping effort to redraw the country’s flood maps in anticipation of future storms. The agency has already revealed updated drawings for states along the Gulf Coast and in the Northeast, and plans to complete its assessments of the West Coast, Great Lakes, and Florida by 2016. The maps place an additional 32,000 homes in New Jersey in flood zones, along with tens of thousands of others in Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.
Technically, compliance with the maps is voluntary. But if a town votes not to adopt them, none of its houses are eligible for coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides policies for 5.6 million U.S. homes. Mortgage lenders typically require dwellings in coastal areas to be covered by flood insurance. A handful of towns, including Greenwich, Conn., have already accepted the maps and incorporated the new standards into local building regulations. Patricia and Peter Ekvall are paying more than $300,000 to raise their Old Greenwich home onto stilts—15½ feet up. “You have an investment here,” says Patricia. “You have to make it work.”
Raising a home is as complicated as it sounds. Water, sewer, gas, and electricity all have to be disconnected. Workers dig to the foundation, run steel beams beneath the ground floor, then slowly uproot the structure with hydraulic jacks. The house is then set back down on a newly built perch.
Residents in some areas are challenging the maps. FEMA contracts with engineering firms to determine which places are at risk of flooding. Once the agency presents its findings, homeowners and officials have 90 days to appeal the plan. They must offer data to FEMA, which usually means hiring engineers of their own. Residents of Toms River, N.J., saw early releases of FEMA maps in December; the agency rushed the plans to the public so those rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy could meet the new standards. The maps put about 10,000 houses in the highest-risk flood zone, which would raise insurance rates $10,000 to $20,000 a year, says homeowner George Kasimos. “If that went through there would have been a riot,” he says. Kasimos started an advocacy group called Stop FEMA Now and organized local rallies against the maps. In June the agency pulled about 9,000 houses out of the high-risk area.
The drastic new rules are the result of an unforeseen collision between two government actions. In 2009, FEMA began a routine redrawing of federal flood maps, some of which hadn’t been updated in decades. At the time, only those building a home in one of the new flood zones would have been required to meet the updated standards. That changed when Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. Among other things, it was intended to shore up the federal flood insurance program, which was $18 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina. (Post-Sandy it now owes the U.S. Treasury about $24 billion.) On Capitol Hill, there was growing opposition in both parties to spending taxpayer dollars to rebuild homes for people who choose to live in high-risk areas. The law gradually raises premiums closer to market rates.
Little noticed in the 584-page bill was Section 100207, which requires homeowners who find themselves in new FEMA flood zones to buy flood insurance—and those who live in existing flood zones to abide by the new rules. Previously, if an existing house was supposed to be 9 feet above sea level and it was built that high, the owner was in good shape. Now come the new maps that say it needs to be 15 feet above sea level—and the homeowner is hit with insurance rates for a house that’s 6 feet below FEMA’s estimated storm surge.
Otto Harling, a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor in Hingham, Mass., joined with 40 others to appeal a FEMA map that adds as much as 10 feet to predicted flood levels. His waterfront home was built 16 feet above sea level and has never flooded. It would have to be raised to 22 feet to avoid insurance penalties. They’ve paid an engineering firm $14,000 to conduct a study. “The government lays it on us from FEMA,” Harling says, “and then we have to use our own resources to get out from under the government.”
Since the new maps hadn’t yet been released at the time the 2012 law was written, Congress couldn’t see how many dwellings would be affected. FEMA, which looked at geography, not population, also didn’t take stock of the number of homes that would be swept into flood zones. That became clear only after towns started comparing the maps to neighborhoods, and people started protesting. “This was the biggest case of unintended consequences,” says Caitlin Berni, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance, a New Orleans-based group lobbying for changes to the law. “These rate increases are just too high.”
Members of Congress are starting to say the same thing. Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, complained to FEMA that maps in his home state are “riddled with inaccuracies.” Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California, one of the law’s authors, has said she didn’t anticipate the “punitive or unaffordable rate hikes” it would cause.
FEMA has tried to calm tempers with town hall meetings, information about federal grants, and a hotline where homeowners can get questions answered. “You have arguments both ways,” says Kerry Bogdan, a senior FEMA engineer for New England. “ ‘It’s transforming our town to these houses on stilts, and it’s so ugly,’ ” she says people tell her. “Then you have people who recognize there is a hazardous risk, and they want their community to be as sustainable and resilient as possible.”
Laurie Futch is firmly in the first camp. Her house in Marshfield, Mass., has never flooded. In the 1980s she lifted it 2 feet above the storm surge. The new maps say her home must now be 7 feet higher. Futch, a bus driver, owes about $50,000 on her mortgage. Her plan is to pay it off, drop flood insurance, and “pray that I don’t get hit.” She can’t afford to lift the house and says she wouldn’t do it if she could: “Who says that in five years FEMA won’t come back and tell us we have to lift it some more?”