Cape Gazette

End of subsidies hits Sussex homeowners

Federal flood insurance premiums are skyrocketing for some
By Ron MacArthur | Dec 06, 2013
Photo by: Ron MacArthur Building in a floodplain requires stricter building standards including elevation and break-away construction. This house was built along Broadkill Beach.

Anne Riley was anxious to talk about her national flood insurance bill. The premium, for her house near Fenwick Island, jumped from $633 a year to more than $8,900 annually.

Her story is not unique. More and more residents who own homes in flood-prone areas are getting new bills that leave them in shock.

Dave Bollinger, FEMA mitigation outreach coordinator, did not dispute Riley's story during a Dec. 2 public workshop at the Georgetown CHEER Center to explain county floodplain maps. One-fifth of Sussex County properties fall within a floodplain.


The updated floodplain maps are available at the Sussex County administration offices on The Circle in Georgetown or online at

Residents can access their properties on maps at

Bollinger said many residents living in flood-prone areas could see large increases in their premiums because federal subsidies are being reduced. Because the updated maps have not changed significantly, most questions at the workshop were about escalating premiums.

The increases can be tied to where people live and new federal legislation that does away with federal subsidies, which have been part of the flood insurance program since its inception in the 1960s.

Riley said she has never filed a claim in the 31 years she has lived in her home.

Homeowners with federally-backed mortgages and most people with conventional mortgages who live in floodplains must have flood insurance. Rates are based on the type of construction, the level of flood hazard and other factors. Regular homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.

Homeowners who have paid off their mortgage or who pay cash for their homes are not required to have flood insurance.

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said more than 200 properties were reviewed during the workshop and hundreds more residents obtained floodplain map information.

Subsidies gone under reform act

The Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 aims to reform the federal flood insurance program, which is $25 billion in debt, according to Bollinger.

The program took major hits from hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, but the primary reason for the deficit is large subsidies, Bollinger said. Some residents in flood-hazard areas will have their subsidies eliminated this year; others will be phased out over the next four years.

People who own second homes in flood zones will see immediate increases as will those whose base house elevation is four to five feet below base elevations on floodplain maps, Bollinger said. That would include many older homes not built above ground. People who have let their insurance policies lapse and people who buy homes in flood zones will pay the increased premiums immediately, he said.

Better technology, better maps

Bollinger said it's been 30 years since some maps were redrawn in Sussex County. Now, he said, with better technology, more accurate maps can be provided. “We have better water levels, better topography and better data,” he said, adding some zones were increased in size and others were decreased.

The software program used to map the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean regions used 500 storms – including real and fabricated events – to draw updated maps, Bollinger said. In addition, as many as 80 transect points were used along the coast to indicate water flow. In the past, about 10 transects were used, he said.

While some maps have not been redrawn for 30 years, there are few major changes, said Jeff Shockley, the county's environmental and floodplain manager. One Sussex location that is seeing changes is along Route 54 in the southeastern section of the county.

Residents can appeal designation

FEMA has 60 days to finalize its appeal process followed by 90 days for residents to appeal their zone designation. Once the appeals process is established, it will be posted on Sussex County's website at

Once the appeal process is over and the floodplain maps in the county's unincorporated areas are finalized, Sussex County Council will need to approve them.

It's also up to county planning and zoning staff to enforce regulations for homes and businesses constructed within a floodplain. FEMA's regulations are incorporated as part of county code.

The regulations kick in on new construction and any remodeling that totals 50 percent of the market value of a house excluding the value of the land, Shockley said.

Houses built in flood zones are subject to a series of construction regulations including everything from elevation of the first floor to how a crawl space is constructed and what type of cement is required. Elevations in flood zones range from 5 feet to 12 feet in Sussex County. New or remodeled homes along the most vulnerable coastal area are required to be built on pilings from 10 to 12 feet above mean sea level, Shockley said.

Before a building permit can be issued, Shockley said, he checks to see if the parcel is in a flood zone. If it is, a floodplain and structural plan is required before a permit can be issued. “It doesn't matter if its a shed or a million-dollar home,” he said. “All structures must be in compliance.”


Lines are long as Sussex residents wait to view revised floodplain maps. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
FEMA staff members work with Sussex County residents to get updated information on their properties. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
David Bollinger is part of FEMA's floodplain map outreach team. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Sussex County staff members help residents locate their properties on color-coded floodplain maps. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
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