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In Marshfield, Warren optimistic on flood insurance relief

The US Senate this week will vote on legislation that would give residents in flood zones relief from higher insurance rates, US Senator Elizabeth Warren told South Shore residents and officials.

Under the pending legislation, homes that are primary residences would get a four-year reprieve from the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which has drastically raised flood-insurance rates.

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The bill also would limit annual increases in flood-insurance rates, require an affordability study to be performed on the program, and reimburse residents who successfully contest their map changes.

“We can’t do this to people,” Warren told the packed room in Marshfield’s Ventress Memorial Library last Tuesday. “You have to make sure you have the right science, [that you have an] affordability study, and you have to have a way to challenge the flood maps so if they aren’t right, you aren’t out of pocket a lot of money.”

Local officials have been scurrying for months to deal with Biggert-Waters, which changed how the National Flood Insurance Program is run. The act raised rates considerably to make the program solvent, charging a higher rate for properties the Federal Emergency Management Agency has deemed to be at higher risk.

For many towns, the reform has been coupled with new FEMA flood maps that substantially expanded the flood zones.

“We understand if we can get [the pending legislation] through the Senate, we’re in good shape in the House. . . . they want to push this one forward,” said Warren.

The Massachusetts Democrat added that local feedback would strengthen her argument for the bill’s passage, and members of the audience provided plenty of examples.

Steve Robbins, chairman of the Marshfield Board of Selectmen, said the town spent $32,000 fighting the flood maps, and that money would have to come from elsewhere in the budget.

Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo and Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi also spoke against the FEMA appeal process. Although towns adhered to tight timelines for appeals, FEMA’s response was vague or nonexistent, they said.

According to residents, the maps and federal mandate would have severe and varied consequences.

Matt McDonough, a Marshfield selectman who owns a home a mile inland, said his flood-insurance premiums would rise from zero to $5,000 a year.

“That’s devastating for a local family,” he said.

State Representative James M. Cantwell, the Marshfield Democrat who organized the meeting, said some residents have seen their premiums rise from a couple thousand dollars to as high as $68,000 annually.

Businesses, too, said they have been hurt by Biggert-Waters.

Chuck Haddad, owner of Haddad’s Restaurant, said he spent $3.3 million to raise his 77-year-old restaurant 13 feet, 2 feet above the old flood elevation, yet 3 feet short of the new flood levels.

The difference means his insurance would increase from $5,300 to $22,000 annually.

“We did everything right, what the federal government told us, what the town told us, and we’re being penalized,” Haddad said.

Though the proposed relief would not exempt businesses from new rates, Cantwell said it would limit the increases businesses could see year to year.

The chilling impact on housing sales and housing prices would ultimately affect town finances, said David Ball of the Scituate Coastal Coalition. The concerns called for a longer-term solution, Ball said.

Warren agreed that the problem would not be entirely solved with a delay. Long-term, the science behind the maps needs to be reviewed, and a process put in place that homeowners could appeal flood maps without financial penalties, she said.

“We’ve got more work to do, but at least we’re headed in the right direction,” she said.

Visit www.boston.com/scituate to see photos from Senator Warren’s meeting with local officials. Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bart-lett@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessmayb3.
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