ANNAPOLIS- In several Maryland counties, properties are being flooded and rebuilt over and over again, sometimes at taxpayers’ expense, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data.
Maryland counts 299 repetitive flood losses over a 10-year period, with Worcester, Baltimore and Washington counties reporting the most. Washington County also has the most properties rebuilt four or more times, and one of the highest total dollar amounts for claims paid for repetitive losses.
Taxpayers can be stuck with the bill for some losses, specifically when flooding occurs outside a mapped flood-zone area, and the property is uninsured, or when a federal disaster is declared.
When flooding occurs inside mapped flood areas, insurance premiums and sometimes emergency funds appropriated by Congress pay for rebuilding.
Flooding outside of mapped areas is occurring because of increased development, which leads to outdated maps that do not include flood-prone areas. Most of Maryland’s flood insurance rate maps are over 20 years old.
“When you put in the developments, streets and other impervious areas,” said Bill Sprague, Washington County planner, “water is only going to run out at a certain rate.”
The National Flood Insurance Program was established in 1968 to offer communities more inexpensive flood insurance. In 1973, Congress added a requirement that any buildings in special flood hazard areas must buy insurance. Since the establishment of the program and the making of most flood insurance rate maps for Maryland in the late 1970s, the population of nearly every county has increased, in some cases doubling or tripling.
With population increases comes development, and with each new development, fewer and fewer grassy areas are available to soak up water. New developments also change the flow of water and lead to more runoff.
“The more land that is paved over, the less room there is for water to go,” said Mark Stevens, spokesman for the National Flood Insurance Program. Repetitive flood losses are calculated on a 10-year rolling basis. Each time a property is flooded within a 10-year period and sustains at least $1,000 in damage, the property is listed as a repetitive loss, unless it is flooded only once within 10 years.
In Baltimore County, repetitive losses have totaled more than $3.7 million dollars and in Baltimore City, more than $2.8 million dollars have been paid for repetitive losses in the latest 10-year period.
“Baltimore County is just a highly developed area, with a high number of losses,” said John Joyce, certified flood plain manager with the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Worcester County, including Ocean City, has $2.5 million dollars in repetitive loss claims and Washington County has a little over $2 million dollars in the 10-year period.
“Approximately half of our flood insurance policies in the state are in Ocean City,” said Joyce.
Anne Arundel, Cecil, Frederick and Montgomery counties, all with more than 10 repetitive losses, have claims totaling less than $1 million dollars each.
Nationally, more than 40,000 of the 4 million properties insured under the NFIP program are identified as repetitive loss properties, according to a news release by the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
FEMA also divides repetitive losses in two categories: properties with four or more losses of more than $1,000 dollars and properties with two or three losses that are equal to or greater than the market value of the property.
Washington and Baltimore counties are tied for the highest number of repetitive losses that have happened four or more times to the same property, with a total of six each. Washington and Montgomery counties have two properties each that have had losses totaling more than their market value.
FEMA is trying to mitigate the most egregious repetitive loss cases. Mitigation helps communities identify flood risks and make them safer, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Probably the most common mitigation is a buyout, where the community identifies a flood-prone property, an individual owner applies for funds and FEMA contributes up to 75 percent of the pre-flood market value for the property. Since 1996, Maryland has had more than 360 buyout projects. Buyouts ensure the property will never again be developed.
“The idea is to break the cycle of flood damage, rebuilding and flood damage,” said Stevens.
Since the flood insurance program was established, more than $3.5 billion in claims have been paid on repetitive loss properties nationwide. Repetitive flood loss claims in Washington, Worcester and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City alone total more than $11 million dollars for 89 properties that have been repeatedly flooded.
The names and addresses of repetitive flood properties are kept confidential, but FEMA said many owners are reluctant to leave their homes even if the structures are repeatedly flooded.
“There are people that no matter how traumatic it is to be flooded over and over again, they are reluctant to leave the family home,” said Stevens. “Other people jump at the chance.”