FEMA flood insurance rates could spike for some, new study shows

With a major overhaul of the nation’s flood insurance program just months away, new data…

With a major overhaul of the nation’s flood insurance program just months away, new data released Monday by the First Street Foundation suggests hundreds of thousands of homeowners in the riskiest locations across America could face massive rate hikes starting in October.

The Brooklyn, New York-based research group estimates the average rate needs to more than quadruple on the nation’s most flood-prone homes under the ongoing effort to make the federal flood insurance program solvent and ensure homeowners most at risk are paying their fair share.

First Street data projects that the majority of homeowners won’t see big rate changes, and others could see premiums decrease. But for some 265,000 properties, annual premiums would need to climb $10,000 or more to match the actual risk. Those with more expensive properties are estimated to see the biggest premium increases. 

Any actual rate hikes adopted by the federal government would be slowly phased in for existing policyholders.

First Street’s calculations, which the group says are based on similar methodology to what the National Flood Insurance Program will use when it rolls out its new rating system on Oct. 1, reveal a major shift is needed in pricing policies. Such changes could level the playing field overall but depress home values in some areas.

Some of the biggest gaps in current premiums versus actual risk appear in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions in places such as Florida, South Carolina and New Jersey. Chasms also exist in pockets of California, Texas and Washington.

In the historic waterfront city of Charleston, South Carolina, for example, nearly four in 10 flood-prone homes would need to pay an average premium of $18,211 to cover the anticipated costs of flooding compared to the current average NFIP rate of $2,264, First Street data shows.

And almost every homeowner on the barrier island city of South Patrick Shores, Florida, would need to pay an average of $24,724 a year to adequately cover their risk. The average rate there now is $491, First Street data shows.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates the National Flood Insurance Program, has not publicly shared how its new “Risk Rating 2.0” overhaul will impact individual premiums. So it’s unknown how close First Street’s calculations will come to the real thing.

But FEMA said First Street’s estimates are just that – estimates. 

“Any entity claiming that they can provide insight or comparison to the Risk Rating 2.0 initiative, including premium amounts, is misinformed and setting public expectations that are not based in fact,” said David Maurstad, senior executive for the National Flood Insurance Program. “While entities are free to suggest or estimate their opinion of what flood insurance premiums should be, they are offering exactly that – an opinion – and they do not have insight into the Risk Rating 2.0 initiative.”

First Street agreed its numbers are estimates but said its modeling is comparable to any of the risk-based approaches that FEMA would use.

“Our data supports the idea that if insurance pricing is adjusted to match the risk from today’s current and future climates, there will need to be significant adjustments,” the group said in a statement.

First Street calculated the property-level financial toll of flood damage by collecting home values and structural information for every single-family and small multi-unit dwelling in the nation and applying it to its previously published flood model with damage formulas.

With that information, the foundation compared current flood insurance premiums to what it says the federal government would have to charge to cover the expected damages each home could incur because of flooding.

Its data release marks the first time individual homeowners across the country will be able to see the estimated risk they face from flooding and what that risk translates to in terms of average annual financial loss – which will dictate potential insurance costs. The group allows property owners to look up that information on its website.

Lookup flood risk details by ZIP code

The First Street Foundation calculated ZIP code-level averages of the financial toll of flood damage by collecting home values and structural information for every single-family and small multi-unit dwelling in the nation and applying it to its previously published flood model with damage formulas.

First Street calculated its figures for about 26,000 ZIP codes in the lower 48 states and D.C. ZIP codes without data are not included.

With the ZIP code information, the foundation created an annual average loss figure for properties that have a 1% annual risk of flooding. The loss figure is an estimate of what an insurer would have to charge per year to cover flood damage to those homes. The group then compared the average loss figures to the estimated NFIP premiums for each ZIP code to determine which areas might see rate changes when FEMA implements rate changes on October 1.

While First Street attempted to replicate FEMA’s approach based on the best available information, all modeling is subject to error and true premium adjustments won’t be known until the Risk Rating 2.0 program is rolled out. Insurance premiums also include other costs in addition to any calculated annual average loss.

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Increased NFIP premiums are a reckoning long overdue, said Carolyn Kousky, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center and a First Street advisory board member.

Kousky said inaccurate pricing has left the NFIP in the red. Its coffers were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The program suffered additional hits from hurricanes Sandy, Harvey and Irma. Congress bailed out the program in 2017 with $16 billion in debt relief, leaving the ultimate cost of those storms on the backs of the American taxpayer.

Flood insurance premiums also will need to keep climbing over the next few decades, First Street said, as rising sea levels, climate change and rapid development in coastal regions exacerbate flood risks.

“Environmental change has already been happening for 50 years, and the policy structure hasn’t kept up with it,” said Matthew Eby, First Street’s founder and executive director. “FEMA is trying to compensate for five decades of mispriced insurance.”

Matthew Eby, First Street’s founder and executive director
Environmental change has already been happening for 50 years, and the policy structure hasn’t kept up with it. FEMA is trying to compensate for five decades of mispriced insurance.

FEMA has for years been working on a new risk assessment and rating structure. When it’s implemented in October, Risk Rating 2.0 will be the biggest change to the NFIP since its inception more than 50 years ago.

For the first time, it will tie individual premiums to each property’s actual flood risk. It also will level the playing field so that properties with the highest risks and the biggest associated damages pay the most.

Currently, the program bases rates on the amount of insurance purchased for a home rather than its replacement cost. So the owner of a $2.5 million house with the same flood risks as the owner of a $250,000 house might pay the same rate even though repairs to the mansion would cost more.

“Over time, this has inadvertently caused a disparity – policyholders with lower-valued homes are paying more for their insurance coverage than they should while policyholders with higher-valued homes are paying less,” Maurstad said. “There is also a disparity at the edge of flood map zones where neighboring property owners often have vastly different flood insurance costs for the relatively same level of risk.”

Aerial view of the flood damage at Bethany Beach, Del., on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.
Suchat Pederson, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal

FEMA said rate reductions would take effect immediately upon Risk Rating 2.0’s implementation. Rate hikes would be phased in slowly – a maximum 18% increase per year – for existing policyholders. Those buying insurance after Oct. 1 would pay the full amount.

Facing the biggest average rate hike are an estimated 4.26 million homes with a substantial risk of flooding that could cause structural damage. Substantial risk is defined as having a 1% annual chance of flood, otherwise known as a 100-year flood risk.

A third of those properties are in flood zones and required to buy flood insurance if they have a federally backed mortgage. If all of them got a policy, the average premium would need to rise from the current $1,884 a year to nearly $7,895 to cover the risk, First Street Foundation data shows.

The other two-thirds of those properties are outside the flood zone but still face a substantial risk of flooding resulting in structural damage. If all of those homeowners got a policy, the average rate would need to rise from $478 a year to roughly $2,484 to cover their risk.

Dawn Maletzke lives in South Patrick Shores, Fla., a barrier island community. She says currently pays less than $400 a year for flood insurance.

Dawn Maletzke lives in South Patrick Shores, Fla., a barrier island community. She says currently pays less than $400 a year for flood insurance.
Dawn Maletzke

No one ever wants to pay more for insurance, said Dawn Maletzke, who lives in South Patrick Shores, a community tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River Lagoon. “I wouldn’t be happy about it, but if we don’t have a choice, we’ll pay it.” 

Maletzke and her husband started buying flood insurance after several hurricanes swept through the area and forced evacuations, but she feels like at less than $400 a year, “it isn’t super expensive.” Even if their insurance doubled or tripled, she said, “it wouldn’t be a huge hardship.”

She doubts it would be an issue for anyone who buys a home in her neighborhood either, because there’s such a demand for homes on the barrier islands along Florida’s east coast.

“People want to live here, and people who do aren’t worried about those things,” she said. “They’ll pay the cost to live here. It’s a lifestyle.”

Conversely, more than one in four counties across the U.S. would see lower rates, according to First Street’s model. They include dozens of counties in central South Carolina, the inland portions of southeast Georgia and the Florida panhandle.

Many of the mostly rural counties along the Mississippi River from Missouri’s boot heel south to the Delta could also see lower premium prices.

For example, owners of some of the most at-risk residential properties in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, could see rates more in line with the $326 average annual loss First Street calculated for their homes. That’s compared to the current average NFIP premium of $814 per year.

In preparation for its expected rollout, FEMA is sharing details of the program with the insurance industry to get feedback, said Joe Rossi, a flood specialist for Rogers Gray Insurance, executive director of the Massachusetts Coastal Coalition and chairman of the National Flood Association’s flood committee.

Rossi has seen the program and the rate structure, but like others in the industry, he is under a non-disclosure agreement regarding the details and rates. 

Joe Rossi, an insurance agent in Massachusetts who specializes in flood risk, is advising FEMA on its Risk Rating 2.0. He says the new program is a positive change.

Joe Rossi, an insurance agent in Massachusetts who specializes in flood risk, is advising FEMA on its Risk Rating 2.0. He says the new program is a positive change.
Joe Rossi

“I personally think Risk Rating 2.0 is a real positive change,” Rossi said. “I say we’re in uncharted territory because this is the first time in 52 years that the NFIP has made this big of a change.”

Rossi is among those who will get a full update on Risk Rating 2.0 on March 3.

First Street and independent experts interviewed by USA TODAY say there are caveats to the group’s study. All modeling is subject to error, and First Street doesn’t directly predict premium increases. It instead assesses how much money is needed annually to pay for estimated damages over the course of a 30-year mortgage. This is consistent with how FEMA says it will calculate its new rates.

NFIP premiums also may be higher after adding in fees or operating costs. Or, they may be lower if a homeowner increases their deductible or obtains discounts for flood protection measures. FEMA caps payouts for structural damage at $250,000 regardless of a home’s value.

Those watching FEMA also say a lot can change between now and October.

Rossi said he has heard the rollout could be delayed, or that some of the parameters might be adjusted “so the industry can kind of grapple a little bit more with the change.”

Congress could still take action that affects the rollout.

“FEMA said it’s a programmatic change and they’re allowed to do it, but if we get a reform bill passed in June and that dictates something different, then there could be a delay,” he said. “Congress may come out and say the maximum amount of increase in a year, which right now is 18%, is 10%, so that changes the dynamic as well.”

The National Flood Insurance Program, implemented in 1968, provides about 95% of the nation’s flood insurance policies – some 5.1 million. 

The rating structure hasn’t changed since the 1970s. It assesses premiums based on whether properties are in a flood zone, the occupancy type and the structure’s elevation. It also takes into account just two types of flood risks: those from rising rivers or coastal storm surge.

That system fails to accurately assess the real risk of flooding and the associated damages, experts say. As a result, the NFIP collects only about $4.6 billion in annual revenue – 80% from premiums; the rest from fees and surcharges – even though it provides more than $1.3 trillion in coverage.

Stephanie Soto sits on the hood of her car after it stalled in flood waters as she was driving on Dec. 23, 2019, in Hollywood, Fla. The Columbus Fire Department in Ohio uses a boat to evacuate people from their homes on Stoneshead Court on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, after heavy rains pounded the area overnight.
Stephanie Soto sits on the hood of her car after it stalled in flood waters as she was driving on Dec. 23, 2019, in Hollywood, Fla. The Columbus Fire Department in Ohio uses a boat to evacuate people from their homes on Stoneshead Court on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, after heavy rains pounded the area overnight.
LEFT: Stephanie Soto sits on the hood of her car after it stalled in flood waters as she was driving on Dec. 23, 2019, in Hollywood, Fla. RIGHT: The Columbus Fire Department in Ohio uses a boat to evacuate people from their homes on Stoneshead Court on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, after heavy rains pounded the area overnight.
JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES; Fred Squillante, The Columbus Dispatch

The 2.0 model aims to bring the program more in line with actual risks by calculating premiums based on each home’s specific structural features and its replacement value. It also will include a broader range of flooding events, such as heavy rainfall, tsunamis and coastal erosion.

FEMA’s existing flood zones will not factor into rate calculations, so properties outside the zones won’t automatically pay lower premiums. Homeowners inside those zones will still be required to buy flood insurance if they have federally backed mortgages.