On the Cape and Islands, the flood insurance business is booming. Bryan Braley is the flood insurance specialist at the Arthur D. Calfee Insurance Agency in Falmouth. He says that, while off-Cape agents in coastal areas like Hull, MA, average one or two flood insurance quotes a month, he’s putting together two a day.
13,000 people on the Cape and Islands have flood insurance. It’s a separate policy, on top of your basic homeowners or business insurance. If you’re in a flood zone, and owe money to the bank on your house, hotel, or any other type of structure, you pretty much have to have it.
Don Filiault co-owns the Beach Breeze Inn, down by the Falmouth waterfront. And his complaint about flood insurance is a common one: “It is very expensive. And the coverage is not very good.”
Like most people, Filiault gets his policy through the National Flood Insurance Program. It’s a government program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It covers up to $250,000 of the cost to rebuild a home, and $500,000 for a business.
But if Filiault’s hotel really gets flooded out, this payout wouldn’t even come close to fixing it. He says the rules and restrictions around flood insurance don’t make a lot of sense.
“When I ask the questions of the insurance people, they don’t have the answers either,” he says. “They can only say ‘This is what FEMA requires, this is how things were put together, here’s what it costs, send us your checks.”
The cost of flood insurance depends mostly on what kind of flood zone your home is in, and how much of it is expected to be underwater in a hundred-year flood.
The average cost on the Cape is $1,300 a year, but there is a way to lower that.
Shannon Jarbeau works for Barnstable County, on a program that gets towns insurance discounts, in exchange for reducing their flood risks.
It’s a federal program called the Community Rating System, and there are 95 activities that communities can get credit for.
Jarbeau says that the credit for open space preservation is a big success on the Cape. Towns also get credit for hazard mitigation planning, maintaining stormwater ditches, telling the public about flood risks, and enforcing the state building code.
So far, eight out of fifteen towns in Barnstable County have signed up.
Orleans has the highest rating on the Cape; its residents get a 15 percent discount. Chatham gets a 10 percent discount, and has put limits on building in high-risk areas. “The towns that I like to see the most are the ones that are looking at zoning changes, that would limit new development in the floodplain, so that we’re not putting too much in harm’s way for the future,” Jarbeau says.
People can lower their own costs by doing thing like moving their heating, out of the basement, installing flood vents and, most drastically, by moving their homes up or out of flood’s way.
Cape Cod properties in the floodplain are worth over $10 billion. But only 35 percent of those homes and businesses are insured against flooding.
Braley says people try to get out of paying for flood insurance all the time. But he thinks it’s short-sighted.
“I hear people saying, ‘I don’t live anywhere near the water,’” he says, “[But] you do live near the water, and that’s the cost of living by the sea—if you’re in a flood zone, you have to have flood insurance.”
The cost of flood insurance is rising every year. And, despite its limited coverage, the National Flood Insurance Program is broke. It’s over $20 billion in debt to the federal treasury, and that’s a debt we all pay for.
The model is far from perfect, but Jarbeau, with Barnstable County, says it’s the best option we’ve got.
“If we were to get hit with a major storm, our best insurance policy as a community is having individuals have flood insurance policies,” she says, “Because there’s not a lot in terms of other government assistance to put your home back together.”
The National Flood Insurance Program expires on July 31. Congress will have to decide whether to renew it, reform it, or to just let it lapse.
Pien Huang is an environmental reporting fellow with the GroundTruth Project, stationed at WCAI.