Local News
6:00 am
Thu January 30, 2014

New Flood Maps Lead Homeowners To Question Skyrocketing Flood Insurance Premiums

The flood map for the Pivas' Andover neighborhood.
The flood map for the Pivas' Andover neighborhood.
Credit National Flood Insurance Program

Congress is considering a bill that would delay flood insurance rate hikes, but that is little consolation to many people whose flood insurance premiums have already skyrocketed. 
 
When Kerry and Geoff Piva bought their three-bedroom home on Balmoral Street in Andover, they thought they were buying into the American Dream.

"The reason we purchased this house is because Andover is such a great town. They have wonderful schools and we know we would like our son to be raised here," Kerry said.

Kerry and Geoff Piva at their Andover home. Their flood insurance went up by $3,000 this year.
Kerry and Geoff Piva at their Andover home. Their flood insurance went up by $3,000 this year.
Credit Courtesy of the Piva Family

From their doorstep, the Piva's can see the Shawsheen River, so they willingly paid $1,800 for flood insurance when they purchased their house in December of 2012. Fast forward to December of 2013, and the Pivas' policy went up by $3,000, Geoff said.
 
That’s an additional $250 tacked onto their mortgage each month. A big hit for a young family with a new baby.
 
"You're trying to adjust your expenses and figure out how you are going to pay for daycare, pay for formula all these different things and now you have this cloud hovering over your head of like now our house isn't worth what we thought it was worth," Kerry said.
 
The Pivas are not alone in their worry about higher flood insurance rates. Throughout the country, homeowners who live near rivers, lakes, and the ocean are facing similar rate hikes. Many of them are second homeowners, or live in houses that have flooded before, or, as in the Pivas' case, they purchased a home after Congress passed a law in 2012 to end national flood insurance subsidies for one million homeowners.
 
At a conference on disasters in January 2013, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said hurricanes Katrina and Sandy led to big payouts, and now FEMA is in $24 billion of debt. He told the conference the national flood insurance program actually has more policies then it has cash on hand.
 
To help make the National Flood Insurance Program and FEMA solvent, Congress passed the law to end subsidies, but that's caused an uproar from homeowners like the Pivas.

"It just seems like they are picking on people to pay their own bills," Kerry said.
 
Some in Congress, including a delegation from Massachusetts, are trying to delay implementation of the law by claiming the flood maps that insurance rates are based on are flawed. Massachusetts Representative William Keating recently told Congress that coastal maps in his district do not accurately represent flooding patterns in New England and that the methodology used to determine flood maps was faulty.

The 2012 flood map of the Piva's neighborhood. Click to enlarge.
The 2012 flood map of the Piva's neighborhood. Click to enlarge.
Credit National Flood Insurance Program

Kerry and Geoff Piva also question the flood map that their insurance rate is based on. It was redrawn in 2012.
 
"If you look at a FEMA flood map, it looks like my four month old drew it," said Geoff. "It looks like it’s drawn with crayons, it was done very very ineffectively."
 
While it wasn't drawn with crayons, the new Essex County map estimates a much higher level of water from a major flood of the Shawsheen River than the previous map did. This raises questions for Peter Baril, a hydrologic engineer at GZA Geoenvironmental.
 
"I guess if you asked me, ‘if you lived on Balmoral Street what would you be doing?’ Yeah I would be knocking on FEMA's door," Baril said.
 
At the request of WGBH, Baril compared the old and new maps and studies. He found that FEMA used a method to update the map that did not seem to consider decades of new data.
 
"From what I can see, and what I can read, I'm not sure why they didn't use the stream flow information that's available on the Shawsheen that has almost 50 years of record," he said.
 
FEMA engineer Kerry Bogdan said the maps go through a rigorous review process, but she did not know if FEMA used all available data on the new Essex County map. She did say homeowners who think the maps have errors could challenge them.

"They would have to provide scientific or technical data that would refute our data, so that would mean hiring an engineer and doing the modeling," Bogdan said.

Hiring an engineer to do hydrologic modeling costs between $5,000 and $20,000.

As part of this week’s in-depth FOCUS report, Greater Boston sat down with State Senator Bob Hedlundm who represents parts of the South Shore. He’s working to block the flood insurance hikes from taking effect.