Wrong Approach

Federal law takes a blanket approach to requirements for participation in the National Flood Insurance Program. The idea was, ostensibly, to protect homeowners from the financial ruin a flood can bring. But all floods are not alike, and it is no surprise the federal program now finds itself heavily in debt, still reeling from events like superstorm Sandy and even Hurricane Katrina.

A bill sponsored by State Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, makes a lot of sense for West Virginians who know coastal flooding is not the same as inland, river flooding; nor is the economic situation for those who lose vacation homes along the Gulf of Mexico comparable to those who might lose everything the next time a hollow gets washed out.

Private flood insurance plans, and a greater range of options within insurance plans, might be just the solution for West Virginians faced with rapidly increasing premiums as the NFIP tries to recoup its losses.

But rising rates – increases of 25 percent a year until premiums meet full actuarial cost – are only the beginning of problems West Virginians encounter as a result of the NFIP. One woman was reported to have found a buyer for her home, until the prospective buyer found out the annual flood insurance rate on the property was about to jump from $300 to $1,400. Hers is, of course, not a unique case.

Coastal residents got a bit of a break during the last hurricane season. That may not be the case this year or the next. There will be another Andrew, Katrina or Sandy, and thousands of high-value properties by the sea will sustain expensive damage.

As Fitzsimmons pointed out, however, “Most homeowners affected by increased flood insurance costs are trying to protect their primary residence, not a vacation home.”

Options within a private plan would include replacing a home, or insuring only the outstanding balance of a home loan, according to Fitzsimmons.

West Virginians know floods. It has been nearly 30 years since 47 residents around the state died in flooding that, locally, sent the Little Kanawha River to 13 feet above flood stage in Glenville and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Such a tragedy could strike again. It has not been quite so long since the Ohio River breached its banks and led many to take rowboats to their front porches, but those waters, too, will again rise someday.

What happens in these mountains and river valleys is not the same as what happens to coastal towns, and the personal and financial costs are very different. Giving residents more options, including the option not to rely on a federal government that cannot figure out how to reshape pyramid schemes like Social Security or Obamacare – is an important step the state should take.