San Diego Homeowners Drown in Flood Insurance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Some San Diego homeowners who have never had to buy flood insurance in the past are now being forced by the government to pay up. NBC 7 Investigates' Dave Summers reports.

    Some San Diego homeowners who have never had to buy flood insurance in the past are now being forced by the government to pay up.

    Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admits mistakes were made when updating the flood insurance rate maps. However, it’s the homeowners’ responsibility to fix the feds’ inaccuracies.

    For example: Nine of 64 homeowners along Avenida Playa Veracruz were informed they are now required to buy flood insurance.

    They are situated on a mesa, over 400 feet above sea level.

    Torrential rains, hurricanes and melting snow flood thousands of homes around the country each year. Just as catastrophic are the repair costs.

    For that reason, many private companies got out of the flood insurance business.

    In 1968, the federal government got involved.

    Thomas Ryan lives in a condo in Mission Valley. After 14 years without it, he now has to pay $129 a month for flood insurance.

    “I never had an escrow account. They opened it and charged my escrow, and it raised my monthly mortgage payment by about 15 percent,” Ryan said.

    He lives on the fourth floor of his building.

    “They've got to be kidding. The whole city of San Diego would be underwater if I flooded,” Ryan said.

    Ryan pays because despite attempts by his insurance agent, he says he can't get the right information to satisfy the feds.

    Last year, the feds required Tierrasanta homeowner Laura Clemmons to get flood insurance.

    “It's a joke,” Clemmons said.

    It would cost $2,000 a year then up to $5,000 annually after the first two years.

    “I would pay off my house, my mortgage before I would give them one penny,” Clemmons said.

    She lives over 400 feet above sea level, overlooking a canyon that she says has collected no more than a trickle of water along the bottom in 20 years.

    “Seriously. C'mon. How could they not see that?” Clemmons questioned.

    FEMA, the same organization highly criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina, was responsible for updating the flood insurance rate maps in 2012.

    The new maps draw homeowners like Clemmons into the federally-mandated flood insurance program.

    They are required to carry the extra coverage if their property stands a one-percent chance of flooding annually and their mortgage is federally insured.

    “It's my opinion that they're using these premiums to subsidize for the losses in New Orleans because of the ineptness down there,” forensic surveyor Mike Pallamary said.

    Pallamary has fought FEMA's new mapping and won. He convinced the feds that eight clients he represented in such cases are actually not in high-risk flood zones. Clemmons is one of them.

    The new maps may appear more accurate than previous maps, but even FEMA will say, in some cases, they aren’t.

    “The boundaries to the flood plains did not always align exactly with topographic features on the ground,” FEMA Region 9 Engineer Ed Curtis said.

    San Diego is situated in FEMA's Region 9. Its representatives spoke with NBC 7 over the phone from Oakland.

    They say community officials and individuals had an opportunity to review preliminary versions of the maps, though even FEMA says the map data was incomplete.

    “Some of those corrections are just, how can I say it, too small to be seen until the error is found,” Flood Plain Management Branch Chief Gregor Blackburn said.

    “Our mapping is just not detailed enough to catch every area of high and low topography when we get down to individual lots,” Curtis said.

    “We wait until it is brought to our attention, or we rely on local officials to provide information about the “LOMA’ process to the individuals,” Curtis said.

    LOMA stands for Letter of Map Amendment. It is an individual homeowner’s way of proving FEMA made a mistake.

    Region 9 says the form is straightforward if you have the right information. However, it requires scientific data that often isn't readily available.

    “That information is going to be either better ground elevation, better topography that shows where the highs and the low points are or better hydrology the study of water,” Blackburn said.

    Pallamary says such studies could cost a homeowner more than the house is worth.

    In some cases, Pallamary advised clients to pay the insurance premium because it may be cheaper than proving they shouldn't have to pay.

    “You go fight city hall. You go fight the federal government. If you've got time and money to do that, good luck,” he said.