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Federal Program Helps Homeowners With Rising Flood Insurance Rates

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many Americans are seeing the cost of climate change in their flood insurance. Rates are rising by a lot in some places. And now there's a federal program that offers discounts, but not all communities are taking full advantage of it. Sam Turken of member station WHRO reports.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: William Jennings and his wife have lived in their home in Virginia Beach for the last 37 years, and their plan was to stay in it through retirement.

WILLIAM JENNINGS: I really like my house - two-story home, a swimming pool in the backyard.

TURKEN: In recent years, Jennings' neighborhood has flooded more and more, including his house once. His mortgage requires him to pay annual flood insurance - about $2,400 now. It's going up 18% in July. He says soon, keeping his home may not be affordable.

JENNINGS: Yeah, I don't want to think about that. One of my neighbors said they'll just walk away from their home and just leave and let the bank take it.

TURKEN: Whether Jennings walks away could depend on how much Virginia Beach invests in a little-known federal program. It's called the Community Rating System, or CRS. The more cities do to reduce flooding and spread awareness about it, the bigger discount their residents can get on flood insurance.

Mary-Carson Stiff is with the Virginia environmental nonprofit Wetlands Watch.

MARY-CARSON STIFF: Signs that say turn around, don't drown, alerting people not to drive through floodwater. Having requirements for structures to be built up higher is something that earns a lot of points.

TURKEN: According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 1,500 communities nationwide participate in the CRS. It can save people living in flood-prone areas hundreds of dollars a year. In Virginia, James City County has gone up to a 25% discount.

DARRYL COOK: (Unintelligible). These are cypress knees.

TURKEN: Darryl Cook works with the program for the county. He walks me through a cypress swamp. Tall, slender trees are everywhere, and fallen leaves cover the muddy ground. This area floods when it rains. Cook says James City County got points for restricting development here.

COOK: It's allowed to flood unimpeded. It doesn't damage any structures or anything like that.

TURKEN: The Community Rating System has been running since 1990. Many flood-prone cities around the country have been involved in it for years, and they've worked to get bigger discounts over time. Mary-Carson Stiff with Wetlands Watch says others haven't.

STIFF: This is big money. You're talking millions left on the table.

TURKEN: Virginia Beach, the most populous city in the state, only got involved last year. Whitney McNamara is an environmental planner with the city.

WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Part of it for us was just our constituents and our elected officials really started becoming more aware of the impact flooding was having on our communities.

TURKEN: Virginia Beach residents with the most flood risk currently have a 15% discount on flood insurance. But McNamara says going for a higher discount would be so time-consuming and costly, there are no plans to do so now.

Roy Wright is a former head of the National Flood Insurance Program. He says flooding is getting worse as the climate changes. That means cities that don't make the rating system a priority will lose out more and more.

ROY WRIGHT: And so a city council needs to look holistically at the value of it because across all of their policyholders who get that discount, it really begins to add up.

TURKEN: Wright predicts that more cities will invest in the program as flood insurance rates keep going up.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Turken in Norfolk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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