WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to help Rhode Islanders avoid abrupt increases in flood insurance premiums, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse last night joined with a bipartisan coalition of 26 of their Senate colleagues in introducing an updated version of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (S.1846).  This legislation seeks to help protect property owners from sharp increases in their flood insurance premiums for up to four years in order to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) time to develop a plan to assist property owners who cannot afford their premiums.  FEMA’s proposal would require Congressional approval before it could be implemented.  If Congress rejects the proposal, the Biggert-Waters reforms Congress passed last year would come back into force.  The bill would also require FEMA to certify that its flood mapping strategy is based on sound science and engineering methodologies.

Last year, to prevent the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) from lapsing and leaving thousands of property owners without access to flood insurance protection, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.  The law sought to phase out or eliminate federal subsidies for certain flood-prone properties in order to address the program’s growing debt.  To date the program owes $24 billion to the U.S. Treasury for funds it borrowed to pay claims from past disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy.  By law, the program may only borrow $31 billion from taxpayers in order to pay claims.  Since 1978, the program has paid $117 million claims in Rhode Island, including approximately $70 million in the last four years as result of Superstorm Sandy and the floods of 2010.

“The National Flood Insurance Program is vital to protecting Rhode Island homeowners as well as our housing market in general.  Homeowners deserve to know their flood risks and the cost associated them so they can take actions to mitigate those risks and reduce their costs.  For too long, the program failed to provide that kind of information and appropriate incentives.  The sudden change in some rates under the Biggert-Waters, however, has been too dramatic and surprising for many policyholders, particularly those who were required to begin paying unsubsidized premiums immediately.  The uneven implementation of the law by FEMA has exacerbated the effect of these changes.  This legislation will give FEMA extra time to strike the appropriate balance between risk and affordability,” said Reed.

“This bill will provide temporary relief to Rhode Islanders facing sharp rate increases in their flood insurance policies,” said Whitehouse.  “This is a sensible step to protect Rhode Island homeowners from unaffordable cost increases, but we must continue working to find a long-term solution that puts the federally supported flood insurance program on solid financial footing without shouldering homeowners with an unreasonable burden.”

According to a report by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), there are currently more than 16,000 NFIP issued policies in Rhode Island (county-by-county breakdown: Bristol: 2,141; Kent: 2,439; Newport: 3,016; Providence: 2,668; Washington: 5,859) and the average premium in Rhode Island is $1,343 annually.  About 6,800 of those policies are subsidized, according to FEMA.  In general, FEMA and GAO have reported subsidized premiums represent only about 40-45 percent of the full flood risk.

The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act is authored by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and currently has the support of 27 cosponsors.  In addition to Senators Reed and Whitehouse, cosponsors of the bill include Senators: Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Robert Casey (D-PA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), John Hoeven (R-ND), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Edward Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Tim Scott (R-SC), David Vitter (R-LA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

A similar version introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives currently has 168 cosponsors, including U.S. Representatives Jim Langevin (D-RI) and David Cicilline (D-RI).

Congress may take up the bill when both the House and Senate reconvene in January of 2014. 

The matter is also pending in federal district court in Gulfport, Mississippi where the Mississippi Insurance Commissioner filed a law suit in October seeking an injunction against the rate increases until FEMA completes the affordability study.  That case may be resolved as soon as December 31.