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By Beth Daley
9 March 2014

SCITUATE (Boston Globe) – Over and over again, the Atlantic has taken aim at 48 Oceanside Drive. Almost four decades ago, it slammed the seafront house clear off its foundation. Thirteen years later, ocean water poured through the roof during a nor’easter. So often has the sea catapulted grapefruit-sized rocks through the vacation home’s windows that a former owner installed bulletproof glass.

In all, the property has sustained significant flood damage from coastal storms at least nine times. And each time, the federal government helped owners rebuild with National Flood Insurance Program payouts — a sum estimated to total more than three-quarters of a million dollars over the years.

Government money helped raise the house on stilts in 2005. Now, the current owner of the $1.2 million vacation house is applying for what construction experts say could be $80,000 or more in taxpayer money to raise the house still higher, hoping to secure it from the thundering surf.

The tortured history of 48 Oceanside Drive and the government’s open wallet highlight the central question as Congress debates changes to the flood insurance program: At a time of rising tides and soaring deficits, does the program create incentives for owners to stubbornly keep homes in places the sea inexorably is claiming as its own?

“We always knew it was unsustainable there,’’ said Dr. David Cooney, 75, a Maryland oncologist who sold the house after the 1991 Perfect Storm severely damaged it.

The saga of the Scituate property is repeated across the United States. There are 534 properties in New England alone that the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers Severe Repetitive Loss properties — meaning in most cases that the flood insurance program has paid the owners for four significant flood claims, two within one decade. Nationally, according to FEMA, there are about 12,000 such properties.

Scituate has 112 of them. Over the years, such properties have accounted for 689 losses. The total in claims: $21.3 million.

All this occurs without any inquiry into whether the homeowners are wealthy, poor, or in between: FEMA’s flood insurance was designed to help all flood-prone properties regardless of economic status. Homeowners, like those at 48 Oceanside Drive, have every right to take advantage of legal government programs to protect their property.

The insurance program, which began in 1968 after private insurers largely abandoned flood insurance because of the recurrent risks, subsidizes some premiums to limit the cost of coverage for owners of older homes that predate current flood plain maps.

It was initially designed to pay for itself, but premiums have not kept pace with payouts since a series of punishing storms starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today, the program is about $24 billion in debt and taxpayers are left to pay the claims.

That shortfall is expected to grow in coming years as sea levels rise and storms are projected to become more intense because of climate change. Atlantic waters from north of Boston to Cape Hatteras, N.C., are rising three to four times faster than oceans globally, according to federal scientists. Billions of dollars worth of homes are on the front line.

In 2012, Congress voted to phase out premium subsidies for homeowners, boosting their insurance costs to better reflect the true risks of living in flood-prone homes.

But even as the law took hold, new federal flood plain maps caused insurance rates to soar for hundreds of thousands of homeowners, many of them in areas where flooding is rare or, historically, not an issue at all.

The shock to those unsuspecting property holders created a backlash, with many politicians, including those in New England who initially voted for the new law, supporting its delay or rollback. [more]

Houses wrecked repeatedly by sea rebuilt with taxes

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