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Deadline Looms To Reauthorize National Flood Insurance Program

Jacki Liszak stands in front of the Sea Gypsy Inn
Quincy J. Walters
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Hurricane season is looming and so is the deadline for the National Flood Insurance Program to be reauthorized. 

On a windy, slightly overcast day, Jacki Liszak tends to the Sea Gypsy Inn on Fort Myers Beach. The Inn is a small quaint hotel and gift shop. 

When she opened up shop in 2012, Liszak got $180,000 in flood insurance from the NFIP. At the time, she said her premium was $2,700 for the year. The next year, it skyrocketed to $47,000. Liszak said she "was, like, in shock." 

"After I got done taking deep breaths and trying not to cry, I picked up the phone and started calling our town council, our county commissioners," Liszak said. "I'm trying to figure out what was going on." 

She found it was the result of the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012. It made a lot of changes to the 60 year-old entity, the NFIP. One of them was removing subsides from some plans. 

"I feel it's a tax. It's not insurance, because only people needing to pay a mortgage have to have this," Liszak said. "I had to let the policy lapse." 

According to FEMA, Liszak is one of nearly two million Floridians with a home or business covered by the NFIP. That's out of about 5 million nationwide. 

In an email, FEMA told WGCU that "rates have annual increases based on a number of factors relating to inflation, and legislatively mandated fees, surcharges, and premium rating changes." 

Liszak said based on the new estimates, after the Bigger-Waters Reform Act passed, her stor was expected to flood every three years. 

While there have been storms to hit Fort Myers Beach--Hurricane Donna in 1960 and the heavy 2004 and 2004 seasons--the shop of the Sea Gypsy Inn is a few feet off the ground. Though the hotel isn't. 

"This building has never flooded. Ever," Liszak said. "It's been here since the 40s. It's not flooded once on record. It just doesn't make any sense."

Chris Heidrick, an insurance agent of Heidrick & Company Insurance, said he's not sure how the NFIP came up with the three-year-flood calculation either

Heidrick sells flood insurance from private companies, which is also an option. 

"The NFIP is not the best option 100 percent of the time. Private insurance is not the best option 100 percent of the time," he said. "It's important that an insurance agent is looking at both options to consumers so they can clearly see which option is best for them." 

Heidrick said Congress quickly realized the problem cause by the Biggert-Waters Act, because the following year, it implemented new legislation. 

"The Homeowners Affordability Act of 2014 was passed to provide some relief for the unintended consequences of Biggert-Waters," he said. 

When her premium came down to around the original rate the following year, Liszak said she re-uped her insurance. 

"Now it goes up 25 percent a year on last year's premium," she said. "Until it reaches $47,000 again."

The National Flood Insurance Program was supposed to work like  this: It would borrow from the Treasury Department in times of bad flooding. In times of little flooding, the program would pay the treasury back. 

But it never took into account the potential for catastrophes like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Or Sandy in 2012. 

Craig Fugate, the former administrator of FEMA and former director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management,  said the program is hopelessly in debt. 

"The National Flood Insurance Program is so far in debt, it'll never pay itself out," he said. 

The NFIP has racked up nearly $25 billion in debt--paying for people affected by Katrina, Sandy and other disasters--and despite that, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle want it reauthorized, but reformed. 

Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Naples said he and other Florida representatives are discussing the program's future with Congress' Financial Services Committee. 

"We've told them how we feel they affect Florida and how important it is that if we have a private sector flood program would be a great thing--that it also provide for a federal insurance backup," Rooney said. "And it needs to be an affordable price." 

Jacki Leszak's Sea Gypsy Inn is right on the beach. It's a high risk area, so her flood insurance premimum is high. But, Billie Jacoby, a floodplain manager in Lee County, said even if you're inland, you should think about flood insurance. 

"More than 25 percent of national flood insurance flood claims come from x zones--which are low risk," Jacoby said. "You really should have flood insurance, even if you're not required to carry it."

People without flood insurance means a heavier burden for taxpayers when, inevitably, another super storm hits.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.