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Flooding in Massachusetts caused by Hurricane Sandy. Flickr

USA - FEMA report: Flood insurance hikes will drive 1M from market

One million fewer people may purchase federal flood insurance by the end of the decade, according to a financial report obtained by the AP

ST. LOUIS -- When questioned by members of Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said its new update to the nation's flood insurance program will prompt more people to sign up for coverage, even though many will pay more for it.

But in a FEMA report obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency estimates one million fewer Americans will buy flood insurance by the end of the decade — a sizable number of people at risk of catastrophic financial loss.

As climate change drives increased flood risk in many parts of the country, FEMA has updated its flood insurance program to more accurately reflect risk, but also make the program more solvent. It's a response in part to criticism that taxpayers were funding big payouts when coastal mansions in risky locations flooded.

But nine senators from both parties expressed “serious concerns” about the new pricing system in a letter last September, after hearing that the agency's internal numbers predicted policies would drop off by 20%. The next month FEMA told the AP those figures were “misleading” and “taken out of context” and that on the subject of how many people will be insured “there is no study or report to share.”

The agency painted a different picture however at the end of the year when it sent a report to the treasury secretary and a handful of congressional leaders saying higher prices would drive a fall off of 1 million policies compared to the beginning of the decade.

The issue of how many people go uninsured for flooding is vital, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

“We are talking the basic economic health, I think of not only our households and businesses, but our communities at large,” if fewer people buy flood insurance, he said.

The federal flood insurance program was started when many private insurers stopped offering policies in high-risk areas. It operates in the red, paying out more in claims than it collects in premiums. By more accurately setting rates, the update, officially referred to as Risk Rating 2.0, makes it more expensive to develop in flood-prone regions, shifting the risks of disaster towards those homeowners.

Risk Rating 2.0 will factor in a property’s unique flood risk — like its distance to water and cost to rebuild. The old system was based largely on a home’s elevation and whether it was in a designed flood zone. Most policy holders will now see their rates go up. But for the first time, nearly a quarter of policyholders will see theirs go down. Buyers of new policies began seeing the new prices in October.

FEMA downplayed the report obtained by the AP as a pessimistic projection, aimed at forecasting finances, not insurance participation. The agency said it has not directly studied how many people will buy flood insurance.

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