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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Romano: Fixing a flood before the rains ever come

The federal government got into the disaster business when it created the National Flood Insurance Program. And for more than three decades, business was good.

Rates were relatively low, claims were mostly reasonable, and hardly anyone paid attention to the warning signs ahead. One hurricane, one super storm and $25 billion of debt later, everything has changed.

So, for the third time since 2012, Congress will consider major flood insurance legislation when returning to session in September. From a Florida perspective, the ideas range from good (cutting regulations to encourage private insurers) to excellent (capping rate hikes at 10 percent a year) to you-better-sit-down (eliminating the rate cap for repetitive loss homes).

Meanwhile, the federal government is branching out. Recognizing the peril of simply staying in the disaster business, it's now entered the disaster-proofing business.

This is where Tampa Bay might want to pay attention.

Historically, about 1 percent of NFIP policies are for homes flooded multiple times. And that 1 percent has accounted for about 50 percent of the NFIP's $25 billion debt.

That's why the government might be willing to give you money. A lot of money.

A flood mitigation grant program is awarding money to those repetitive-loss homes to ensure they never flood again. In other words, the government is willing to spend money ahead of time, so it's not paying for the same repairs every few years.

This can be accomplished several ways. The home could be razed and rebuilt at a higher elevation. It could be razed, and the homeowner could build again elsewhere.

Or it could simply be raised.

This is how I came to be standing 13 feet above the carport at Pat Evans' house in the Shore Acres neighborhood of St. Petersburg.

Evans, an office manager at a Tampa law firm, ignored the first letter she got from the city notifying her she was eligible to apply for the grant. The second time, she began to investigate.

Her home had not flooded in more than a decade, but she had had plenty of close calls. And she was eligible for the grant because the previous owners supposedly had three claims in a 10-year span that resulted in insurance payouts that were nearly double the value of the house.

Evans considered tearing down the house and starting over again, but had concerns whether the grant would cover enough of the cost. Besides, she liked her house. Built in 1921, it had character and charm.

"I flip flopped back and forth on it,'' Evans said. "There was so much involved, I wasn't sure if I could pull it all together. But I finally decided this was an opportunity I might not get again.''

And so Evans applied to have the home elevated. The 50-page application starts with the city, then has a state review and finally goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Because it is working with a limited pot of money, FEMA only chooses projects it deems most cost-effective to undertake.

This helps explain why St. Pete has had only eight houses chosen in the first three years of the program. Plus, the city typically does not get a very high rate of responses when it sends letters out to residents who might qualify.

Another drawback is the FEMA money comes as a reimbursement. That means residents need to pay construction costs up front, and then get the grant money as the work is completed.

And the costs can be substantial.

Because of FEMA confidentiality rules, Evans could not discuss the price of elevating her home. Depending on the type of home and the amount of work involved, an elevation project could be as low as $35,000 or as high as $160,000, according to Mark Wendel of American Structural Services. The extent of work at Evans' house, which Wendel's company did, would appear to be nearer the higher end of that scale.

The project took six months — and FEMA provides additional money for temporary housing — but with amazing results. The house was elevated without any damage, other than a few hairline cracks in the plaster that have already been repaired.

The house now sits on pillars well above any conceivable flood event, with stairs in both the front and back. Evans is eventually going to put up walls around the pillars and create a garage.

Meanwhile, instead of looking at yearly 10 percent increases, her flood insurance dropped from close to $2,000 to $300 annually.

Looking at it from a larger perspective, the program could stabilize the real estate market in Pinellas, which has more subsidized NFIP policies than any county in the nation. If Congress does not act to extend funding for NFIP in the next month, or tampers with the grandfather clause, it could have disastrous results for the individual homeowners and the region's economy.

"Mitigation is akin to an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure,'' said Joe Farrell, director of governmental affairs for the Pinellas Realtor Organization. "If Congress finds a way to fund this, it will save taxpayers a ton of money in the long run.''

The application process for the 2017 grant program has just begun.

To find out more about the flood mitigation grant program, go tofema.gov/flood-mitigation-assistance-grant-program

To find out more about the flood mitigation grant program, go to: fema.gov/flood-mitigation-assistance-grant-program

To find out more about the flood mitigation grant program, go to: fema.gov/flood-mitigation-assistance-grant-program

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