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updated: 3/31/2014 10:43 AM

Suburbs hit with flood insurance rate increases

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  • Some homeowners required to have federal flood insurance like Cheryl Brady of Wheeling have seen their premiums jump. A new law approved this month limits the size of annual increases.

      Some homeowners required to have federal flood insurance like Cheryl Brady of Wheeling have seen their premiums jump. A new law approved this month limits the size of annual increases.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Cheryl Brady of Wheeling received a letter from FEMA that said her federal flood insurance premiums would be increasing by as much as $3,500. She's hoping a new law will roll back that increase, which she says she can't afford to pay.

      Cheryl Brady of Wheeling received a letter from FEMA that said her federal flood insurance premiums would be increasing by as much as $3,500. She's hoping a new law will roll back that increase, which she says she can't afford to pay.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

This story has been updated to reflect that Joliet is located near the Des Plaines River.

Cheryl Brady has lived in her Wheeling home for the past 15 years, and though she says it's never flooded, she's still required by her mortgage lender to have flood insurance. Her neighborhood sits within the boundaries of a flood hazard area, determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Brady used to pay premiums of around $800. Last September, she made a payment of $1,088.

Then, just three months later, she got a letter from FEMA that said she owed an extra $3,500 -- and if she didn't pay, her amount of coverage would be reduced.

Her story is one that will be shared, to some extent, with more than a million Americans who have policies with the National Flood Insurance Program, which faces a $24 billion shortfall because the amount of payouts has been far greater than the amount of premiums collected.

The program has long offered subsidized rates to residents and business owners whose properties lie within high flood risk areas, though the program's debt especially grew after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

A law passed by Congress in 2012 required that property owners who had subsidized policies start paying rates based on the true risk of flooding.

With some policyholders like Brady seeing their rates skyrocket almost immediately, a new bill was signed into law this month that stems the tide of those rate increases -- to no more than 18 percent per year for any individual policyholder, and no more than 25 percent per year for owners of businesses and second homes.

How far or for how long the rates will climb is unclear, leaving homeowners like Brady wondering how they'll be able to afford it.

"With all these hurricanes and tornadoes, I'm sure FEMA's struggling, but do you have to take it out on us?" Brady said.

She hasn't paid the higher premium yet, while she waits to see if her bill will be reduced by the new law.

An Associated Press analysis shows that as many as 1.1 million policyholders nationwide could face rising premiums in the coming years until they reach risk-based rates.

In Illinois, half of the nearly 49,000 policyholders in the flood insurance program are paying subsidized rates that are expected to climb.

The Illinois community with the greatest number of policyholders facing annual premium increases of as much as 25 percent is Prospect Heights, one of several towns along the Des Plaines River that's endured severe flooding over the past several years.

A total of 1,096 policyholders there are facing increases -- 1,080 of whom could see their rates climb by as much as 18 percent a year. The city has a population of 16,256.

Mayor Nick Helmer said the federal government is "dealing with numbers based on past experience" and doesn't take into account what he says is a reduced future flooding risk thanks to recent flood mitigation efforts. He pointed to projects in the works, such as filling gaps in the Levee 37 flood wall that sits next to the Des Plaines River, and adding compensatory storage to nearby Heritage Park in Wheeling.

"There's no question the history is borne out by these numbers, but what about now and in the future?" Helmer said.

Neighboring Des Plaines and Wheeling -- two towns that have also been hit hard by Des Plaines River flooding -- also have their share of policyholders whose rates are expected to increase. Des Plaines has the second-greatest number of policyholders statewide facing rate increases at 895. Wheeling is number five on the list with 547.

Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris knows about the rising flood insurance rates not only because residents are complaining about it but also because he sells flood insurance policies in his day job as an insurance broker. He said he's seen some premiums increase by as much as 300 percent.

Argiris said he's concerned about what the rising rates mean for the resale value of homes. On his block, a neighbor who tried to sell his house had a prospective buyer who was qualified to buy it and was ready to sign on the dotted line -- until finding out how much the flood insurance premiums would be.

"We've had catastrophes like Katrina and Sandy. We're all paying for it. I understand that. But to what extent?" Argiris said.

Northwest suburban residents aren't the only ones affected by higher insurance rates. In Joliet, which sits on the Des Plaines River, 642 policyholders will see their rates climb. In Aurora, which sits on the Fox River, 461 policyholders will pay more. The AP's analysis shows that hundreds of property owners in river towns throughout the country will experience rate increases.

In Addison, located near Salk Creek -- a Des Plaines River tributary -- rates will increase for 515 policyholders.

Though flood insurance is sold as part of a federal program overseen by Congress, Addison Mayor Rich Veenstra said one thing local officials can do is take a look at FEMA's flood maps to make sure "residents are not inappropriately listed in floodplains." Last year, Addison and DuPage County officials successfully contested some of the maps and had them revised, he said.

In Addison and neighboring Wood Dale, where 108 policyholders are due to see rate increases, the local governments have been working with FEMA to buy out flood-prone homes near Salt Creek. There are 15 such homes in Addison and three in Wood Dale that have already or will be demolished. The land is expected to remain vacant.

"In the long run, it's going to be cheaper to buy out these houses and tear them down," said John Forrest, Wood Dale's community development director.

Those who live in so-called high flood risk areas, as determined by FEMA's maps, are required to buy flood insurance if they have a mortgage that is through a federally regulated or insured lender. The cost of that flood insurance varies widely due to a number of factors, including the elevation level of a structure and age of the building.

Those in moderate to low-risk flood zones aren't required to buy insurance, though many still do.

The latter represents the bulk of flood insurance policies that Connie Roth of Roth & Roth Insurance Agency in Aurora sells. She says many of her clients in Aurora and Naperville decided to buy insurance after floods that hit the area in the 1990s. Premiums for the average policy hover around $400, though Roth expects those rates will also be increasing.

For those who don't have mortgages but still live in a high flood risk area, Roth said she personally would still be sure to have insurance regardless of the cost. Many times, she said, it depends on affordability and each homeowner's financial situation.

"It's like health insurance," Roth said. "Some people can't afford it because of the monthly premiums, but if you wind up in the hospital for a week, that could force you to go into bankruptcy."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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