FEMA Flood Insurance Changes, First of Many Shifts in South Florida

Over the last 50 years, staff at FEMA have collected $60 billion in premiums but paid out $96 billion in reimbursements for flood damage

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People looking for flood insurance policies will likely pay more in the future. The latest change is October 1, when FEMA is rolling out its new “Risk 2.0” flood insurance program. 

FEMA has not updated the way it measures flooding risk in fifty years. A lot has changed since then. Now FEMA will factor in rainfall, storm surge, and how much it costs to rebuild. In the past they looked at more basic statistics like a property's elevation. 

FEMA spokespeople write online they’re making the change because right now cheaper properties are shouldering a higher burden than more expensive properties. 77% of policyholders will see an increase in premiums with the highest increase going to expensive properties in flood prone areas. 

Federal law sets an 18% per year increase as the maximum.  The National Flood Insurance Act in 1968 created the program and the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973 required properties in FEMA designated flood zones to have insurance.

Over the last 50 years, staff at FEMA have collected $60 billion in premiums but paid out $96 billion in reimbursements for flood damage. 

Several US senators, including Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have asked FEMA to delay the change but so far that has not happened. New policies change next week and renewal policies change over to “Risk 2.0” in April. 

According to FEMA, 23% of policy holders will see $86 per month decrease; 66% will see $0 to $10 increase; 7% will see $10 to $20 per month increase; 4% will see $20 or more per month increase. 

Over the next thirty years it will not only be the FEMA policies changing. Property insurance rates are expected to increase across South Florida. Stronger storms and sea level rise will bring more flooding. 

People who live in Opa-Locka know flooding is not just a threat for beachfront properties. Eight miles inland, the city sees plenty of flooding. 

“It always rains in Opa-Locka. Nine times out of ten, this street will flood,” Jacqueline Cooney tells NBC 6 walking along NW 30th St. 

When storms come, the street fills up and water rushes onto nearby properties. Throughout 2020 and 2021 news crews captured flood water rushing through the same neighborhood after heavy rains. Cooney tells NBC 6 her family members will avoid visiting just because they worry about getting caught in the water after a quick rain. 

“It’s not going to get better. It’s definitely going to get worse,” Cooney said. 

Houses have water damage. Trash and debris pile up near storm drains, brought there by the water. 

“Economically somebody is going to have to lose their home because they’re going to have to decide to pay these high insurances or are not going to have insurance and just lose everything,”Cooney said. 

There is a large amount of data available from the Federal government when it comes to flooding and climate change. The non-profit First Street Foundation compiles the data in their Flood Factor program. Researchers there rank properties one through ten based on their flooding risk over the next thirty years - with ten being the worst. 

Cooney’s neighborhood is full of sixes. You can scan the map to get a better understanding of how vulnerable South Florida is to flooding and sea level rise. 

“The property owners will see increased risk,” said Ed Kearns, chief data officer at First Street Foundation. Kearns used to be the chief data officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Over the next thirty years, Kearns says, heavier rainfalls and a higher water table from sea level rise will put the flooding system to the test. 

“These engineered systems do have breaking points. So do not expect the same level of protection that you’ve enjoyed over the next thirty years without changes to the system as it is today,” Kearns said. 

Kearns says Monroe and southern Miami-Dade County will see the first drastic impacts of flooding over the next three decades. Nearly all of the Florida Keys are listed on the Flood Factor portal in extreme risk of flooding. 

By 2050 he says, 13-17% more properties will be in the extreme risk category. 

The nonprofit hopes to boil down useful information so homeowners can get a future look at their flood risk. They compile the data from NOAA precipitation rates, United States Geological Survey stream and sea level rise gauges, along with other state and federal data. They then match it with studies on sea level rise from the scientific community. 

“When that heavy rainfall falls, the system has to get that water out to sea and it’s becoming much more difficult to do that,” said Kearns.

In Opa-Locka, Cooney expects it to become harder and more expensive to live in the area. 

“Depending on what neighborhood you live in, flooding will be your norm,” Cooney said. 

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