Chris Allen and Ed Carpenter took every precaution to build their dream house with a view of Mill Cove and Narragansett Bay.
They knew they were in a flood and high wind velocity zone. They knew the requirements they had to meet and they went beyond them. The house is built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. The roof is strapped down and the Anderson windows and doors are designed to take winds capable of tearing leaves and branches off trees.
That’s just part of what they did.
The house stands on 24 columns built of hardened, reinforced cement. To pour the columns, contractors dug down 17 feet. They backfilled around the columns with crushed stone and “cooked” earth to remove any possibility of contaminating the shoreline soils.
They had a good idea what they could be up against.
A house once stood on the Old Mill Boulevard site. The foundation was still there when they bought the property.
“When the 1938 hurricane hit, the roof ended up in Shawomet,” said Allen.
The columns don’t just provide bedrock for the house; they also lift the house above the projected base flood elevation for the area. To meet the standard determined by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps, Allen and Carpenter had to be 17 feet up. They went up to 21. In addition, the columns are tied together, a process called honeycombing, to give the structure added stability. The lower walls of the house are engineered to break away, allowing a storm surge to wash through. All major appliances, including heat, air conditioning and electrical, are at 21 feet or higher.
If anything is going to be standing after the next giant hurricane, it is going to be the Allen and Carpenter house. And if it isn’t, “then the whole city of Warwick is going to be gone,” said Allen.
But this story isn’t about how Chris and Ed will beat the next big storm. It’s about the inequities of flood insurance and how, even when every letter of the code has been met and more, the injustice of outrageous premiums.
When Chris and Ed moved into their “dream home” in 2004, they were told they needed the maximum in flood insurance, coverage for $250,000. This made sense. They were carrying more than that in loans and, under federal law, property within a flood zone used for collateral is required to carry flood insurance. Supposedly, the premium is based on the severity of the flood zone and the height of the livable portion of the home from the base flood elevation. Everything Chris and Ed had done put their house more than three feet above that level.
When Chris got their first premium quote, she was incredulous.
She was told flood insurance would cost $35,000 a year.
“What do you mean? We’ve done everything?” she remembers asking. She was told nothing could be done. That was the rate.
Chris shopped nonetheless.
She found a broker who went the extra mile, although according to FEMA the premiums are fixed according to risk. Through Harleysville Insurance they were able to get a policy with a $5,000 premium.
Still, this didn’t make sense. In theory, the home is as safe from a storm surge as Veterans Memorial High School, which is used as a hurricane shelter and more than a mile from the Bay. Why should they have to pay that much?
Michelle Burnett, state flood plain coordinator with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), didn’t have an explanation. In a phone interview Monday, Burnett said it appears Chris and Ed did everything, and even took extra steps, to reduce flood and storm impacts. At 21 feet, the lowest living floor of the house is four feet above the base flood elevation level.
So, why was their premium so high?
“It makes me think there was an error in quoting the policy,” she said.
Meanwhile, people with older homes in the neighborhood, and at nowhere near the elevation of theirs, were paying premiums as low as $300.
“I talked to Reed’s [Senator] office. No one would lower the rate,” Chris said, describing how she contacted the state and the senator to argue their case.
Nothing changed until last year, when FEMA redrew flood zone maps and the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was enacted. Current maps remove the house from the high velocity zone but don’t alter the flood elevation.
The premium dropped from $5,261 to $367 a year.
Naturally, Chris and Ed are delighted. It’s money they’ve been able to put back into the house for tile work they are doing. They have done pretty much everything themselves, from hardwood flooring, to wallpapering, painting, cabinets and drapes.
Yet, it raises the question, what changed? Why were they required to pay almost $50,000 in premiums over 10 years?
“It should go by the risk,” said Chris. “I think we deserve the $300 because of all the things we’ve done.”
In essence, Chris believes the high premiums covered what other homeowners, far more susceptible to flooding, should have been paying.
That’s not the way FEMA sees it.
The claim is that, until the Biggert-Waters Act, the government was subsidizing more than 40 percent of the flood insurance policies. Following Katrina, the federal program has not been able to make up for losses and is facing a $24 billion debt. The act, which went into effect July 1, 2013, is designed to phase out the federal subsides and put the real cost of flooding on the homeowner. In some cases, this could result in premiums of $22,000 and more for properties that are worth $300,000 and less.
Now that has become apparent and legislators have called for a four-year delay in implementation. Legislation doing that has passed the Senate but, so far, a similar bill in the House has not reached the floor for a vote.
“We’re waiting to hear right now,” said Burnett.
Chris Allen wonders what will happen if legislation isn’t passed or, for that matter, if higher premiums are simply delayed for four years and not lowered.
“Some people are going to have to walk away from their homes and that’s not fair either,” she said.
She suggests that homeowners be granted temporarily reduced premiums while they take flood mitigation measures, such as removing furnaces from basements and elevating structures.
But, given Chris and Ed’s experience, one can’t help but wonder why the system doesn’t work fairly.