Federal Flood Hazard Zones: The Impact of Recent Changes

posted by Jane Freeman January 2, 2015

On July 6, 2012 the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (Reform Act) was signed into law.  The Reform Act made significant changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in three major areas by: (1) updating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood insurance rate maps (FIRMS); (2) restructuring insurance coverage, rates and premiums; and (3) modifying mitigation assistance programs. Because all of Connecticut’s municipalities participate in the NFIP, changes in this program will have widespread impact.

Anyone purchasing, building or repairing a storm-damaged home in a special flood hazard area, must understand these changes in order to make an informed decision about investing financial resources in these areas.

Background

The NFIP was created in 1968 and is administered by FEMA.  When first enacted, the NFIP required communities to adopt standards for new construction and development in order to minimize the risks from floods.  Pre-existing homes and businesses, however, were not required to comply with these new standards and could remain as they were.  These “grandfathered” properties could still obtain insurance under the NFIP at lower, subsidized rates which did not reflect the property’s real risk from floods and were not subject to rate increases even when flood risks in their areas increased.  In 2012, Congress recognized that these discounted rates were not sustainable or financially sound and took action to eliminate some artificially low rates and discounts.

New FEMA Maps

New FIRMS were adopted by FEMA with an effective date of July 8, 2013.   FEMA developed these flood maps after a statistical analysis of data from river flows, storm tides and rainfall; a study of topographic and aerial mapping; and an analysis of coastal hydrology and hydraulics.  The new maps are available in digital format on FEMA’s website at www.fema.gov.

Flood Zones

Flood zones are geographic areas which FEMA has defined according to varying levels of flood risk.

A Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) is an area with a 1% or greater chance of flooding in any given year.  SFHAs are the most flood prone areas and lenders universally require flood insurance in these areas under federal law.  Zone A (AE, A1-A30, AH, AO, AR and A99) and Zone V (VE and V1-V30) are the SFHAs in which structures need to be elevated above the one percent flood line.  Properties in V zones are typically in coastal and tidal areas and are subject to additional hazards due to wind and wave action.  In contrast, properties in A zones are typically in areas further from the coast or in inland flood plains and are not subject to wave action under normal flood conditions.

Zone X (which includes the older B and C zone designations) is a moderate to low risk area in which flood insurance is available but not required.  Zone X is considered a non-special flood hazard area.

Flood Zones and the BFE

The required elevation for a structure in a SFHA is determined by its flood zone category.  Therefore, if you plan to purchase or build a new home, or repair an existing home in a SFHA which has been subject to “substantial damage,” you will need to know its flood zone category.

The required elevations for structures in A and V zones are different, although elevations for both zones are determined with reference to the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) designated on a FIRM.  The BFE is the prediction of how high flood waters will rise in a specific area from a flood; it is measured in whole feet and marked on FEMA maps for the area.

For structures in A zones, the top of the lowest floor must be elevated to the BFE.  In V zones, structures must be elevated on piles so that the bottom of the lowest horizontal structural member is at the BFE.  Municipalities may increase these elevations in their zoning and flood plain management regulations by requiring elevations of more than one foot above the BFE for construction.

Changes to the Flood Zone or BFE of Your Property

In some cases, properties (or portions) which had not been located in a SFHA have been re-mapped so that they are now in a SFHA.  In in other cases, properties formerly in a SFHA have either been removed from a SFHA or re-mapped in a different flood hazard zone.  Further, the BFE for properties in a SFHA may have been increased or decreased on a new FIRM.

There are a few ways to determine your flood hazard zone.  First, you can review FEMA’s digital FIRM maps; currently, however, these maps are not very user friendly and before purchasing property which may be located in a SFHA, a more definitive determination should be made.  Second, you may seek assistance from the municipal land use officials who administer building codes and flood plain management regulations in your town.  Third, you may consult with a registered land surveyor or a professional engineer.  These professionals have the ability to compare FEMA’s digital FIRMs with a town or city’s GIS maps, which depict the location of your property.

Compliance with NFIP’s Elevation Requirements

If you construct a new home or other new structures in a SFHA, you will be required to comply with the NFIP’s elevation requirements and with your town’s stricter elevation requirements, if any.  Further, if you construct an addition to your home, or if your home or other structure is “substantially damaged” and you elect to repair it, you will also be required to comply with these elevation requirements.  A “substantially damaged” structure is one in which the cost of repairing the building to its before-damaged condition would equal or exceed 50 % of the market value of the building before the damage occurred.

Flood Elevation Certificates

The purchase of a home is one of the largest financial investments you are likely to make.  Therefore, before signing a purchase agreement, it is essential to determine whether the property you would like to buy is in a SFHA.  A registered land surveyor or a professional engineer can provide you with a flood elevation certificate.  This certificate will indicate the flood zone of the property; the BFE for that zone; and the elevations of structures on the property in relation to the BFE.  A wise seller should secure a flood elevation certificate before marketing a coastal property and a wise buyer should be certain to obtain this certificate either from the seller, or at his or her own cost, if necessary.

If you already own property in a SFHA, your lender will require a flood elevation certificate for any re-financing of your mortgage; your insurance company will require one before issuing a new policy or renewing an existing one; and zoning and building authorities will require one before issuing permits for additions or repairs.

Insurance Impact

The Reform Act made two major changes to the insurance rate structure for properties in a SFHA: (1) subsidized rates for properties that are below the BFE, even if they complied with building codes when built, will be eliminated, resulting in higher insurance premiums.  These rates will increase by 25% per year until actuarial rates are achieved; and (2) “Grandfathered Rates” for primary residences will end when the property is sold; when an existing policy lapses; when a new policy is purchased; or when there are severe, repetitive flood losses.  Property owners should confer with their insurance agents to determine what measures, if any, might be taken to reduce their flood risks and insurance premiums, but as a rule of thumb, if a home is constructed or lifted to an elevation above the BFE, there will be substantial savings on annual flood insurance premiums.

Conclusion

Owning a coastal property in a SFHA has become more complicated and potentially more expensive.  Property owners should consult with their legal, insurance and engineering professionals in order to develop a working knowledge of the risks and costs associated with owning properties in SFHAs.

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