A caffeine-fueled intensity may pervade local town halls as officials prepare to defend their communities against skyrocketing flood insurance bills.
Several communities on the South Shore, including Duxbury, Marshfield, and Scituate, are working feverishly toward a deadline to appeal new federal flood maps. The pressure is less intense in inland communities, where officials in Halifax and Norton, for example, say flood maps have changed very little.
In coastal towns, the maps have raised the predicted level of a 100-year flood, placing thousands of new homeowners in a flood zone and forcing those who hold a mortgage to buy flood insurance. Homeowners who already buy flood insurance may pay more than in the past, due to the higher flood level and to a 2012 law that will eliminate some federal subsidies.
The cost could be significant. Eugene Sullivan, who owns a house on Turner Road in Scituate, received a bill for $67,431, in addition to a premium of more than $1,300 the family had already paid, according to state Representative Jim Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat, who provided a copy of the bill. Sullivan could not be reached for comment, and his listed telephone number was disconnected.
As a result of the increase, Sullivan and his wife, Margaret, have dramatically reduced their insurance coverage, from a previous $302,000 for the building and contents to a bare-bones $5,100, according to their agent, Albert Marchionne of Albert J. Marchionne Insurance Agency in Quincy. They apparently want to keep the policy in effect in case any grandfathering becomes available under federal law, he said.
‘You could tell the anxiety is so high that people keep coming back wondering if anything is changing.’
The towns of Marshfield and Scituate have filed, or plan to file this week, two appeals each. The deadline falls Wednesday or Thursday depending on differing interpretations of a 90-day appeal period. The towns have cooperated to hire two companies, the Woods Hole Group and Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists, to evaluate the calculations used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and look for scientifically sound grounds to appeal.
In Duxbury, Town Manager Rene Read said the town was awaiting word from the Woods Hole Group about whether it had grounds to appeal.
“If we can appeal, we will,” he said.
Town appeals are expected to address lines of measurement, called transects, in the maps. In Marshfield, Ransom reviewed two transects at a cost of $7,000 and Woods Hole Group eight transects for $25,000, according to Town Administrator Rocco Longo.
The focus of the appeals is narrow because time is so short, according to Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi.
“We simply were not given enough time,” she said.
The shutdown of the federal government complicated plans to appeal, as local officials could not be sure whether FEMA offices would be open to receive or process their paperwork. Shutdown or not, Longo said, he plans to hand-deliver Marshfield’s documents on Tuesday to FEMA, to a consultant working with FEMA, and to the office of US Representative William Keating, a Democrat who represents the South Shore, South Coast, and Cape Cod.
Although some towns have decided to file appeals that challenge the maps, homeowners are ultimately responsible for their own appeals, which involve hiring a surveyor or engineer to document the elevation of the property.
Longo said Marshfield is taking heart in the experience of Long Island homeowners who, according to an NBC News report on Sept. 11, had their maps changed when New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer intervened. According to the report, FEMA had used mapping data from a different county to save money.
A call from the Globe to Schumer’s office was met with a message about the government shutdown.
Scituate has scheduled a flood information workshop for Oct. 22 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Scituate Harbor Community Building on Jericho Road. Town officials and volunteers will be available to answer questions.
Marshfield has held two similar meetings, and some residents attended twice.
“You could tell the anxiety is so high that people keep coming back wondering if anything is changing,” Longo said.
Cantwell organized a conference call with Longo, Vinchesi, a consultant from the Woods Hole Group, and Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office to discuss legal issues related to the flood insurance changes, Longo said. Federal law calls for an affordability study of the changes, and it has not been done. In addition, premium increases will affect affordable housing, potentially making it unaffordable, he said.
Two volunteer groups, the Marshfield Citizens Coastal Coalition and Scituate Coastal Coalition, have been working to keep residents informed and to organize opposition. They held a rally, one of several across the country, on Sept. 28 at Scituate Harbor.
Last month, 51 state legislators signed a letter to members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation asking them to support a delay of the federal law that increases premiums for the National Flood Insurance Program. Not long after, the congressional delegation wrote to House and Senate leaders, calling for a delay in premium increases and for funding of the affordability study.
Legislation has been filed that would freeze the law for a year, Cantwell said. Action in the aftermath of the government shutdown will be far from assured, but one of the main sponsors of the 2012 law, California Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat who represents an area between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, has reportedly said she did not intend such high increases and wants to delay implementation of the law.
The law, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, aims to stabilize the finances of the National Flood Insurance Program. Recent storms and rising sea levels show that changes, including up-to-date maps, are needed to make the program viable, supporters say.
But Cantwell said the new maps anticipate winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and waves more than 3 feet high in the center of Marshfield, 2.5 miles inland.
“Those things stretch the imagination,” he said.
Beyond filing an appeal, homeowners can sign up for a preferred-risk policy, at a discounted rate, if they buy before the new FEMA maps are accepted by Town Meeting in the spring, Cantwell said. Information is available at www.floodsmart.gov; scroll down to, “Get coverage for as low as $129 per year.”