February 12, 2020

MONROE COUNTY — A new metric for measuring potential storm surge damage threatens to make more homes subject to costly repairs and rebuilds as nonconforming structures, among other pocketbook impacts, according to a local insurance watchdog group.

The Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LiMWA), or projected “hazard line for wave action” implemented in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new preliminary flood maps, has determined that houses along the water are not the only ones in danger of structural damage during a hurricane or flood event.

The addition of the LiMWA delineation allows communities and individuals to better understand the flood risks to their property, according to FEMA.

Inland homes that fall into the LiMWA area under the proposed new maps are expected to receive 1.5-foot or higher breaking waves during a 1%-annual-chance flood event and, therefore, will likely have to conform to higher specifications as if they were on the coast.

FEMA’s proposed flood maps depict two coastal flood hazard zones: Zone VE, where the flood elevation includes wave heights equal to or greater than 3 feet; and Zone AE, where the flood elevation includes wave heights less than 3 feet.

The LiMWA line is going to change a lot of people’s ability to build or rebuild.

“A major downside of being moved into one of these VE zones is if your home happens to get significantly damaged in a storm, then you have to become compliant to the new building code,” Steve Russ, vice president of Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe, told the Free Press last week.

“Bringing homes into compliance, new windows, new roof and you end up talking $500 a square foot for renovation. That’s tough.”

Other results from the map changes could be requirements by lenders for property owners to carry flood insurance or pay higher rates.

Properties with an X zone elevation fall outside the LiMWA designation because they have minimal risk of flooding and, consequently, are not required by lenders to carry flood insurance. In the case of a split-zone parcel, such as a property bisected with X and AE zone designations, the more stringent zone wins.

Monroe County and Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe have both hired in-house consultants to vet the proposed flood maps.

“The appeal window for FEMA’s new proposed flood maps won’t open until the maps are advertised [in the Federal Register], which is at the earliest a year away,” said Karl Bursa, Monroe County’s chief of floodplain regulatory operations. “That advertisement begins the appeal window, and the general idea is that that won’t be until late winter or early spring of next year if there are no hiccups and no delays.

“Until they are rendered by FEMA, they are subject to change upon comment and appeal.”

Homes within the LiMWA area will most likely be deemed nonconforming, even if newly built, unless they were built above elevation. New construction must abide by the new state building code.

“If homes weren’t built above the designated elevation, then they’re likely nonconforming even if the base flood didn’t change,” Bursa said.

He recommends homeowners in the LiMWA consider adding a flood policy to their home insurance premium if they don’t already have one.

Russ recommends the same.

“The first thing that these folks would want to do is they should go ahead and purchase a flood policy. They will be rated under this preferred rate policy, which will guarantee them a lower rate,” he said.

Under FEMA’s new metrics, the Keys have averaged a 1.44-foot elevation loss. Homes in north Key Largo on average lost up to 1.57 feet in elevation while homes in Key West lost 1.33 feet.

Russ, who didn’t have specific numbers of homes affected by new flood zones in Key Largo, said, “In Key West, there are approximately 2,000 homes coming out of the X zone and into a special flood zone. Those 2,000 homes represent $51 million in insurance premiums over the next 20 years.”

The average home flood premium is $450, which will eventually rise to $3,100 over the next 20 years, according to Russ. Rather than immediately increasing rates to $3,100 or higher, it’s a gradual increase. If the house should be sold, the rate is grandfathered.

“I am sure there are certain homeowners who are anxious to appeal,” Russ said. “FIRM is asking their consultants to see if there are any broad-scale problems. FIRM, in particular, is hoping to find systemic issues to lessen the impact to homeowners, but that remains to be seen.”

A formal appeal must include data and documentation showing FEMA’s proposed flood maps are scientifically or technically incorrect.

There is a $170 appeal application fee and a $5,000 deposit required to be submitted. The $5,000 deposit will be held in escrow and the money from this deposit will be used on an as-required basis by the county’s consultant during the appeal process.

To view the preliminary maps, visit fl-monroecounty.civicplus.com/1151/New-Preliminary-Coastal-Flood-Maps.

tjava@keysnews.com