Blair nixes flood rating program

Hazard Mitigation Planning group identifies flood insurance savings

At a recent meeting of the committee that is updating Blair County’s hazard mitigation plan, members weren’t enthusiastic about including a recommendation that municipalities join a federal program that can reduce flood insurance premiums for property owners by as much as 45 percent.

But even if a recommendation to take part in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System doesn’t end up in the county plan’s five-year update, “it doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” said Hazard Mitigation Planning Committee Chairman Dave McFarland, the county planning director.

All 24 Blair County municipalities participate in the National Flood Insurance Program itself, making property owners eligible for flood insurance underwritten by the federal government — though sold through local agencies.

But only Altoona participates in the voluntary Community Rating System — participation that has reduced the cost of flood insurance in the city by 10 percent.

The CRS gives municipalities the opportunity to earn credits by adopting up to 19 “activities” designed to protect against flood damage.

Depending on which and how many of those activities municipalities undertake, they can move up from the baseline rating class of 10 — which provides no premium discount — to level 1, which provides the maximum 45 percent, according to a FEMA documents provided by McFarland.

Each successive step provides an additional 5 percent discount.

Altoona, which entered the CRS program in October 2012, has advanced two steps, achieving a rating of 8.

Much of that advance involved paperwork, according to Jane Gill, the city’s flood plain administrator, who spoke when the city received a CRS plaque.

The qualifying activities have included providing proof that the city has a flood plain ordinance, as required by the insurance program anyway, Gill said.

That ordinance calls for the first floor level of new buildings within the 100-year-flood plain to be at least 1.5 feet above the 100-year water level, according to Gill.

The city has received CRS points for “outreach,” including distribution of pamphlets at a community event, posting of information on the city website and the provision of information to the Altoona Area Public Library, she said.

The city also has received points for having and enforcing a stormwater ordinance, for having removed 24 homes in heavily flooded areas in a FEMA buyout program and for the Water Authority’s mapping of the inundation zones for its high-hazard dams, Gill said.

Other activities that can win points and help premium costs recede include providing technical advice to property owners for guarding against flood damage; requiring that real estate agents disclose flood hazards when they sell property; adopting stricter-than-required regulatory standards; maintenance of flood data; maintenance of drainage systems; and flood protection projects, according to a FEMA publication.

As of several years ago the city’s discount saved its 218 National Flood Insurance Program policyholders a total of $16,000, bringing their collective premium payments down to $191,000, according to information provided by McFarland.

About 5 percent of the 20,000 communities that participate in the NFIP nationally participate in the CRS program, including 36 in Pennsylvania, according to FEMA.

The National Flood Insurance Program underwent a major change in 2012 with passage of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which began phasing out subsidies, while creating a reserve fund.

When the law went into effect, about 20 percent of policies were subsidized, according to a FEMA website.

The law called for some of those to lose their subsidies immediately and some to lose their subsidies at the rate of 25 percent per year — until policyholders were paying premiums that reflected the full risk of flood damage.

Subsidies were being phased out for second homes, businesses, properties where claims have already exceeded market value and for residential properties — other than complexes with more than four units — that have received serious repetitive losses, according to the website.

Subsidies were not being phased out for existing policies on primary residences, although those subsidies were to disappear when policies lapse or the properties are sold.

Owners of 100-year flood zone property with an outstanding mortgage must buy flood insurance, according to Gill.

Countywide, the owners of 1,276 properties worth a total of $180 million pay a little more than $1 million a year for NFIP coverage, according to a handout from McFarland.