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Philadelphia Flood Insurance: Residents are missing out on FEMA CRS discounts

Philadelphia Flood Insurance: Residents are missing out on FEMA CRS discounts

Philadelphia’s Path to Joining FEMA’s CRS

City officials expect Philadelphia to enter the Community Rating System at a level that would give residents a 10% discount on FEMA flood insurance. The city could seek a 20% discount “with the support of dedicated staff” and would likely need to hire the equivalent of one additional staff member to administer the program regardless of the discount level, said Dora Chi, program coordinator for communications and strategic initiatives in the city’s Office of Sustainability, in a written statement.

Officials say the city could earn points for things it already does: its public communication about flood risk, its requirement that the first floors of new buildings in the 100-year floodplain be raised 1.5 feet above the level the flood is expected to reach, its ban on hospitals and correctional facilities in the floodplain, its restrictions on development on steep slopes and its hazard mitigation plan.

To get more points, however, the city might have to take some unpopular steps. For example, it could restrict the use of fill in floodplains, further raise elevation standards for new construction, or ban new buildings in floodplains altogether.

It would be difficult for the city to earn points for purchasing or relocating properties, because of the physical limitations of townhomes, Montes said.

It would likely be difficult for the city to secure discounts that would significantly help Glenn, Barnes and Haakenson. But all three homeowners want the city to pursue more aggressive discounts, such as the 35% discount enjoyed by residents of Avalon, New Jersey.

“A discount is better than nothing, but I think it should be more than 10%,” Barnes said.

Haakenson, who is still considering getting flood insurance, said a 20 percent discount would be a bigger motivator.

“If it was more like 35%, 40%, I think that would definitely push me to make that type of purchase,” he said.

Jamie Glenn poses for a portrait on her street in the Eastwick neighborhood of Philadelphia
Jamie Glenn at her home in Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Streamlining the process for obtaining flood insurance discounts

A report released last week by a Pennsylvania task force on flood insurance affordability recommends that the state help municipalities participate in the Community Rating System.

“Right now, we don’t have enough participating communities,” Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Michael Humphreys, who chaired the task force, told WHYY News in May.

Philadelphia’s experience trying to join the program mirrors what Humphreys has heard from several municipalities: The process can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

“Although many communities have already implemented qualified mitigation tactics, … residents are unable to obtain discounts on flood insurance premiums because their community is not formally enrolled in the CRS program,” the task force report reads.

Montes said Philadelphia began considering joining the Community Rating System about a decade ago, but it took years for the city to fully resolve floodplain management issues that FEMA found during a 2016 audit required to join the program. FEMA said last fall that delays in formally resolving those issues were due to staffing changes at the state and federal levels, as well as the COVID-19 shutdown.

The Pennsylvania task force recommended creating a statewide Community Rating System Assistance Office to streamline the process. The office, which would likely be housed within the state’s emergency management agency, would help municipalities implement activities that would earn them points, assist them in submitting applications and educate communities that do not participate in CRS about the program.

“We can talk to communities about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other communities,” Humphreys said before the task force report was released. “And we hope to really speed up the readiness time and serve as a resource for them to be able to develop technical expertise.”

Montes sees Philadelphia’s participation in the Community Rating System and the resulting flood insurance discounts as part of the city’s adaptations to climate change.

“If anything, we need it now more than ever,” he said last fall. “And we will need it more in the future.”