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Officials make case on flood insurance rates

1:33 PM, Feb 13, 2014   |    comments
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Photo of a flooded area after Tropical Storm Debby in 2012



WASHINGTON (News-Press) -- It seems clear the House won't adopt a Senate bill freezing federal flood insurance rates for the next four years, say Southwest Florida officials who lobbied for the bill this week on Capitol Hill.

But the small group of mayors and county officials came away hopeful for a compromise that would provide at least temporary relief to thousands of home and business owners facing skyrocketing premiums.

"They all recognize the state of the affairs that we're in," Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said Wednesday. "They all recognize that we need to do something."

Possible solutions include a one- or two-year delay in the premium increases, or more flexibility to keep the increases in check by raising deductibles, he said. There's also been talk of capping the annual increases so they can be absorbed over time.

Nearly 270,000 Florida property owners with policies through the National Flood Insurance Program are facing premium increases that in some cases are ten times more than current rates.

The increases are threatening Southwest Florida's fragile real estate recovery.

In response, the Senate last month passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act with support from Florida's senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson.

The measure would delay the premium increases for four years until the Federal Emergency Management Agency completes a study of how to make the rates affordable. It would apply retroactively to rate hikes that took effect Oct. 1.

Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana is pushing a similar measure in the House.

Some GOP House leaders say the premium increases are necessary to move the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $24 billion in debt, closer to solvency.

The White House has raised similar concerns, saying delaying the rate hikes would erode the flood program's finances and make it more difficult for FEMA to pay claims.

Delaying the premium increases for four years would add an estimated $1 billion of debt to the flood insurance program.

Ruane was one of four mayors who traveled to Washington to build support for the legislation. They were accompanied by Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker. The group visited the offices of about 20 House members, sometimes talking directly to the member but more often dealing with staff.

The delegation included Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson and Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel.

Their most effective ammunition consisted of copies of notices to property owners of the dramatic premium increases. One homeowner's bill went from $4,000 to $30,000 a year, while one business saw its bill increase from $2,400 to $50,000.

"When we handed them a copy of the insurance policy from last year and this year, their eyes rolled back," Kiker said. "They didn't realize what impact there was."

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