GALVESTON, Texas -- Zoila Navarro's bakery in Galveston has persevered through tough times. It reopened after being flooded by Hurricane Ike in 2008, and stayed open after her husband was killed during a robbery last year.
But the 60-year-old business owner isn't sure it can withstand what might be its toughest challenge yet: flood insurance premiums that have gone up from about $2,600 annually to more than $11,000 following a 2012 law overhauling the federal government's flood insurance program.
"We are a small business. It's too much. That amount frightens me," Navarro said.
President Barack Obama signed a law Friday offering much-needed relief for policyholders like Navarro by rolling back steep hikes that took effect almost overnight as a result of the 2012 reforms. But for many, the reprieve is temporary.
The legislation still imposes mandatory price hikes of 25 percent every year on businesses and second homes, until the owners switch from a subsidized rate to one based on the real risk of flooding. Other homeowners face increases that are capped at 18 percent per year.
Like other communities around Texas and the country, Galveston's business owners, real estate agents and officials say the overhaul could have dire economic consequences - stifling home sales and shuttering businesses.
Across Texas, more than 61,000 flood insurance policies are expected to increase due to the overhaul. It was aimed at weaning hundreds of thousands of homeowners off subsidized rates and shoring up the flood insurance program, which is $24 billion in debt.
Galveston Councilwoman Terrilyn Tarlton said the new rate relief law "didn't go far enough."
"It would have a devastating impact to our economy, our livelihood, everything," said Tarlton, who is also an insurance agent.
In Galveston, an island city of nearly 48,000 residents, flood insurance is a necessity. Almost the entire island is below base flood elevation, the level at which a building has a 1 percent chance of flooding annually. And the city has had its share of hurricanes. The most recent one, Ike, damaged 75 percent of the city's houses.
According to an Associated Press analysis of National Flood Insurance Program data, 34 percent of flood insurance policies in Galveston get a rate subsidy and will be facing increases.
Damien McDonald nearly scrapped his plans to open a second surf shop in Galveston when he learned he'd have to pay more than $8,000 annually in flood insurance. Instead, McDonald opened Texas Surf Co., about a month ago, but bought less inventory than planned and decided not to hire another employee.
"It is going to put a strain on the business," he said.
Some business owners who saw high rates because they bought a policy after the 2012 reforms will now get a discount, but it'll be steadily erased over time.
In Surfside Beach, a coastal city of less than 500 residents that's about 40 miles southwest of Galveston, 51 percent of flood insurance policies are set to increase.
Real estate agent Suzan Zachariah said one family that bought a $125,000 home in 2012 is now paying an annual flood insurance premium of $17,000. The previous owner paid $2,400 a year. Under the changes, the family should see their rate rolled back to something closer to the previous premium, but it will then increase by up to 18 percent per year.
While residents with mortgages have no choice but to buy flood insurance, Zachariah believes many of those who already own their homes just won't purchase it.
Surfside Beach Mayor Larry Davison said while he favors efforts to fix the flood insurance program, the overhaul "was too fast, too radical."
"I think everybody now woke up and is saying, 'Let's be more reasonable and figure out how to make this thing work.' I think they are going to fix it," he said.
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3/24/2014 8:01:57 AM (GMT -5:00)