Homeowners battle to correct incorrect flood maps

Pressure from FEMA has many paying for insurance they don't need

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PORTLAND — Months after Carol Justice was wrongly told her home needs flood insurance, the Cornelius resident is still paying up — even though a surveyor has since determined her house is not in the flood zone.

Justice is one of hundreds of Oregon homeowners caught in a faulty system in which lenders lump properties near flood zones with those actually in it, a designation that requires flood insurance. It's an issue that has drawn state scrutiny along with talk of minor federal reforms. Locally, the number of Oregon homeowners challenging flood zone designations is on the rise.

The state's National Flood Insurance Program coordinator, Christine Shirley, said the system remains flawed.

"Nothing has really changed," Shirley said.

Justice lives on South Heather Street, where homes sit close to a flood hazard area, their backyards extending into a protected wetland. Some of those homes did not require flood insurance until 2012. That May, she and other homeowners along her street received letters from their lenders saying FEMA had designated their residences at high risk of flooding.

Since then, Justice said her life has been marked by a long series of payments. Flood insurance forcibly placed on her loans since 2012 costs $400 per month. A surveyor, who determined in October that her home is 8 inches outside the flood zone, cost $500. Using the surveyor opinion, her revised 2014 insurance quote lowered the payment to $700 per year but was due in full by November.

"I didn't sign on for any of this," she said. "I would not have bought this property if I thought flooding was an issue."

Justice's situation illustrates a larger narrative unfolding across the country: Lenders telling homeowners with properties just outside the flood zone that they need flood insurance when often they don't. Part of the problem is horizontal mapping for what is technically a vertical measurement — whether water would likely reach a person's home. It's also difficult for homeowners to undo mapping errors, requiring costly surveys and lengthy paperwork.

FEMA has upped the stakes for lenders, with recent legislation more than quadrupling federally imposed fines for those failing to insure homeowners in flood zones. Shirley said that pressure has led insurers to require flood insurance for homeowners on the border of flood areas but not necessarily in them. The solution, though expensive, is slowly taking place in high-risk areas across the nation: More accurate FEMA maps that take into account a home's elevation rather than simply the property at large.

Congress is now broaching possible reforms.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, along with a bipartisan coalition of legislators, introduced the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act on Oct. 29, mainly tackling flood insurance rates.

The legislation would delay looming flood insurance premium increases until FEMA completes an affordability study. But it also addresses homes wrongly placed in flood zones, reimbursing homeowners who successfully fight those designations.

Shirley said the legislation as a whole has good intentions.