When Laurie Futch bought her parents’ converted cottage in the 1980s, she paid almost $50,000 to raise it above the government-designated flood level. Now the Marshfield homeowner finds herself, along with thousands of others in the south suburbs, facing new or substantially higher premiums for flood insurance based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s redrawing of flood lines.
“I could be looking at flood insurance costing me $10,000 or more a year,” said Futch, who works as a school bus driver. “I don’t know too many people who can come up with that kind of money.”
Although her potential increase is speculative at this point, some homeowners will grapple with a double-whammy of costs — first, because their homes are no longer above base flood elevation, and second, because a 2012 federal law, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, will eliminate the grandfathering of properties that were allowed to use old flood-risk data, and will end subsidies for certain types of properties.
Many additional homes have been placed in the high-risk flood zone for the first time, and if the owners have mortgages, they will be required to buy flood insurance.
Residents are trying to find out how the web of changes will affect them. On Wednesday, FEMA and state and local officials will host a public information session in Marshfield to meet individually with Plymouth County property owners. They will be available starting at 4 p.m. at Furnace Brook Middle School for consultations, followed by a presentation at 7 p.m. The presentation will mainly address Marshfield and Scituate, but residents of other communities are welcome.
In Marshfield, roughly 1,500 homes are located in the expanded flood zone, and in Scituate, about 500, according to local officials. An estimated 1,949 structures were added to the flood zone in Marshfield, but that number includes outbuildings.
At Wednesday’s meeting, FEMA staff will lay out the local maps and interpret them for anyone who has questions, said Richard Verville, chief of hazard mitigation assistance for the agency’s New England office. The presentation will cover how FEMA arrived at the new flood zones and explain the rate increases under Biggert-Waters. Officials will take questions from the audience, he said.
Property owners have the right to appeal their inclusion in the flood zone, but they have barely more than six weeks left to do so. The deadline is Oct. 17 throughout the county, Verville said.
For an appeal to be successful, the owner would have to prove, with professional documentation, that the elevation is different from what the maps indicate. “They have to show they have better technical data,” he said.
The maps take effect about 14 months after the appeal period closes, he said.
Scituate has looked into whether the town could mount a communitywide appeal, but it cannot, according to Selectman Anthony Vegnani.
A non-governmental organization, the Marshfield Citizens Coastal Coalition, is trying to identify possible errors in the mapping. Chairman Joe Rossi said the group is investigating whether it would be worthwhile to pay for additional measurements that could provide the detail necessary to alter some flood lines. “We’re told it’s expensive,” he said.
The coalition has also launched a postcard campaign lobbying members of Congress for changes to Biggert-Waters.
“This act is absolutely devastating our communities,” said Rossi. “Something needs to be done.”
Coastal residents like Futch, who lives on Island Street, between the Green Harbor River and the ocean, are worried. She said she pays $549 a year for flood insurance, but based on an example on the website of Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development group watching the issue, she believes her price could climb to $10,000.
The house has been in her family since 1962, and she does not know how she can afford to keep it now that the base flood elevation has been raised, she said. Nor does she know how she will sell it. “We’re going to own property that has zero value,” she said.
Futch said her property has never flooded, yet FEMA now considers it several feet below flood level. “Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on them, instead of us?” she said.
Base flood elevation is the level at which FEMA considers the annual chance of flooding to be 1 percent or higher. The agency calls that area the Special Flood Hazard Area, or high-risk zone.
Insurance premiums take into account the elevation of the home in relation to the base flood elevation, so each case is different. Homeowners need an elevation certificate from a surveyor or engineer to establish their elevation.
Under the 2012 law, formerly subsidized premiums for about 5 percent of policyholders in the National Flood Insurance Program — those for non-primary residences, businesses, and properties that have sustained severe, repetitive losses — will rise immediately by 25 percent a year until their premiums cover the actual risk. Not all subsidies are being eliminated, but if a property is sold, or the policy lapses, that property’s subsidy will end.
Most other policies will carry new assessments on their premiums, initially set at 5 percent. The law also raises premiums by phasing out a grandfathering system under which some property owners were allowed to use old flood-risk data.
The complexity of the changes has usurped most, if not all, of numerous town employees’ time in recent days, Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo said.
“In my 30-year career, I have never dealt with something that is going to have the impact this is going to have,” he said.
Longo said Marshfield is trying to earn a 10 percent discount on premiums through the Community Rating System, which provides incentives for effective flood preparedness. Discounts go as high as 20 percent, which Marshfield had years ago, but today, achieving that level essentially requires a full-time employee, he said. No town in Massachusetts gets 20 percent, he said.