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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

New maps could mean new obligations

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

NARRAGANSETT — Get ready for a confusing chapter in the National Flood Insurance Program. This fall, many Rhode Islanders are going to find out if they have to buy flood insurance for the first time. The reason: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently updated the Ocean State's coastal and riverside flood zones to reflect current risk levels.

Congress also wants the heavily indebted program to pay for itself, so rates are going up on many properties already covered by flood insurance.

The new state maps will be released county by county in September and October, and they are going to raise a slew of questions. When will rates increase? How much will they increase? How will exemptions be applied? Can the new flood zones be contested?

Here are some of those details discussed during a July 10 public forum with FEMA officials at the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus:

New flood zones will sort of reflect sea-level rise. The maps only take into account the existing flood zones, so only known sea-level increases will matter, not predicted sea-level increases. Flood-zone mapping, however, is expected to be reviewed more frequently, thus factoring in rising sea levels, expanding flood zones and more frequent floods.

Existing policies. Rhode Island has 16,271 flood insurance policies. That’s about half as many homes and businesses that should have policies but don’t because property owners let policies lapse or never got flood insurance. There is no enforcement mechanism requiring property owners in flood zones to buy flood insurance, although banks may require it in order to qualify for a mortgage.

New maps. Excluding Bristol County, the new flood maps will be online and at city and town planning departments this fall: Newport County, Sept. 4; Kent County, Sept. 18; Providence County, Sept. 18; Washington County, Oct. 16; and Bristol County, May 16, 2014.

Community approval. Each city and town must approve the flood zones, which FEMA says is in their best interest. However, it could come with community pushback and a possible conflict with existing state planning policies.

Discounts. Cities and towns earn a 5 percent premium discount for local policy holders if they join FEMA’s Community Rating System Program. Communities can also adopt new building codes, such as higher foundations, which can help reduce premiums or eliminate the need for insurance. Editor's note: Westerly qualified; Charlestown hopes to, once Housing Official Joe Warner completes training to become the town's designated storm czar.

Higher premiums. Flood insurance rates have already increased for owners of second homes. The premium increases 25 percent annually until the federal subsidy is eliminated, which varies by property. On Oct. 1 rates also increase on properties that flood frequently. Primary residences will only have rate increases after a property is sold, the policy lapses or a new policy is purchased. In all, 43 percent of flood insurance policies in Rhode Island are subsidized, and those subsidies will likely be replaced by higher premiums.

The July 10 event was sponsored by the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan, known as the Beach SAMP. Grover Fugate, director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, will oversee the multi-year study of the impacts climate change will have on Rhode Island’s shoreline.

“There’s no question that sea-level rise is occurring; we're starting to see an acceleration of that rate now,” Fugate said.

Prolonged nor'easters and more frequent hurricanes will hasten the advancement of storm surges. Roads, infrastructure, water supplies, sewage treatment plants and first-responder facilities are threatened, Fugate said.

Sea-level rise in New England will likely increase more quickly than in other coastal regions due to ice melting and changing currents, he said. “That’s why we are here to put together a plan to be more resilient,” Fugate said.