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Homeowners air concerns over flood rates

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NEW PORT RICHEY — U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis said he organized last Wednesday’s town hall meeting so federal officials could hear first-hand accounts from Florida homeowners who are in dire financial straits after seeing their flood insurance rates skyrocket because of changes from the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.

The 2012 law, which began taking broad effect in October, removes so-called subsidies from older homes built before modern flood maps were drafted. The homeowners have been paying rates that don’t reflect their flood risk.

“They need to know the real-life scenarios,” the Palm Harbor Republican said. “People in D.C. think these are all $1 million homes on the beach.”

More than a third of Pasco’s 31,000-plus flood policies — 11,413 — had received the federal subsidies.

Dozens of homeowners lined up to share their stories with Susan Wilson, FEMA’s floodplain management and insurance branch chief for seven Southern states. There was the condominium owner who said his board raised his dues by $400 a month to pay for flood insurance, and the Hudson man who said his premium went up to $10,000 for a $115,000 home.

Gulf Harbors resident Michael Napier said his flood insurance premium shot up to $31,000 a year for the house he bought last April. “They’re going to foreclose on my property,” Napier said. “I can’t afford $2,500 a month for my insurance on top of a $2,000 mortgage.”

Hudson resident Mike Westney is in the same predicament. He bought a house on a canal last year, and his flood insurance premium increased tenfold — to $20,000 a year. He bought private insurance from Lloyds of London for $9,300, but he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to make those payments.

Wilson listened to each story, but she had few words of encouragement. “I don’t have any good answers for you,” Wilson said. “I don’t make the rates.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are scrambling to pass legislation that would delay premium hikes while FEMA completes an affordability study. Bilirakis is among nearly 200 members of Congress who have either introduced legislation or supported a host of different bills aiming to stop, delay or modify the premium changes meant to bring the federal program out of more than $24 billion in debt.

“I think my solution is the best solution, but I’m very open minded,” Bilirakis said. “I’m willing to go with a delay.”

State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told the crowd he has co-sponsored a bill that makes it easier for the private insurers to sell flood insurance in Florida. “This is a backstop,” he said. “The state of Florida has put in $4 for every $1 we’ve received in claims — I would think there’s got to be a private model in there. We’re not going to sit idly by in Tallahassee and watch these rates go up 200 and 300 percent.”

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