Senate agrees to House flood bill

WHEELING – Under election-year pressure from constituents, the U.S. Senate in an unusual show of bipartisan cooperation voted 77-22 to overhaul a federal law that has triggered massive increases in flood insurance premiums around the country, including for about 2,000 residents in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.

All West Virginia and Ohio senators voted in favor of the bill, already approved in the House last week, which now awaits President Barack Obama’s signature.

Twenty-one Republicans joined 49 Democrats and two Independents in approving the measure. All but two of the bill’s opponents were Republicans, while six senators did not vote.

“At a time when many Americans are still struggling to pay the bills each month from a slowly recovering economy, it is unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of homeowners have faced unreasonable and unmanageable increases to their flood insurance premiums,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “I’m pleased that members of Congress from both chambers have come together to relieve hardworking American homeowners from these drastic rate increases.”

The law at issue is the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act, which sought to eliminate a $24 billion shortfall in the National Flood Insurance Program by phasing out lower, subsidized rates in favor of “full-risk” premiums. But the jump to full-risk premiums was immediate for new or lapsed policies, inciting fear the changes would cripple the real estate market and drive property values into the ground.

The compromise bill passed Thursday caps annual premium increases at 18 percent, and allows policyholders to pass subsidized rates onto new owners when they sell their property. It pays for the delayed increases by tacking on an annual surcharge to NFIP policies, $25 for primary homes and $250 for businesses and vacation homes.

Numerous horror stories have surfaced since many provisions of Biggert-Waters went into effect in October. One man in New Martinsville said after he bought his house, his premium shot from $750 per year to more than $7,500. And on Wheeling Island, according to local realtors, it now costs $8,000 per year to obtain $60,000 worth of coverage.

Locally, concerns of unfair remapping of flood zones also have been raised, with reports of property owners being charged thousands per year for flood insurance because a few feet of their property lies within a flood zone even though the house itself is out of harm’s way.

Led by Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu – whose home state of Louisiana has been hit particularly hard by changes to the flood insurance program – the Senate passed an outright four-year delay in premium increases in January. But House Republicans balked, saying that would have added $2.1 billion to the NFIP debt over 10 years, and the Senate ultimately chose to accept the House plan.