Through the wringer

Almost a year has passed since intense rains caused area waterways to gush over their banks, closing many local roads and all of the bridges in downtown Naperville, cancelling school in local districts for two days, and causing many millions of dollars’ worth of property losses across northern Illinois.

Now, homeowners in flood-prone neighborhoods here and nationwide face the prospect of an insurance tab that could rise for millions of policy holders. In many cases, property owners have been notified that their private insurers are hiking premiums, or will no longer cover them at all. Many others are girding for higher bills on their federally subsidized policies.

“Mine won’t be going up, because the insurance company I have is wonderful,” said Dale Bryson, a longtime resident of the Cress Creek neighborhood, where many homes were hit hard by sanitary sewer overflow last spring, of his flood coverage. “But some of my neighbors have had their policies cancelled or have heard their premiums are going up.”

The expenses involved in addressing a flooded basement can add up to $10,000 or more if such things as flooring, walls and major appliances have to be replaced. Numerous homeowners in Cress Creek and Cress Creek Commons had designated flood coverage a year ago, but not enough.

“I talked to many, many people who have maybe $5,000 or $10,000 in coverage,” Cress Creek Homeowners Association President John Tarantino told The Sun after last April’s floods. “That’s not going to begin to cover the damage left in these basements.”

Arrayed relief

The flooding triggered by heavy rains April 17-18, 2013, affected some 9,000 properties in DuPage County and resulted in federal relief payments of more than $15 million to county residents and business owners. The direct costs absorbed by the city of Naperville topped $820,000, due to overtime, drainage fixes, and repairs to roads, bridges and utilities.

Michael Costello was one of the residents whose expenses were reimbursed with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His Huffman Street basement has taken on sewage six times in the dozen years the Costello family has lived there, and they’re on their third washer-dryer set, he said. The worst flooding, he said, was the five feet that flowed in last April 17.

Huffman Street, which also experienced heavy flooding in the summer of 1996, no longer has problems with storm sewers failing, Costello said. But when the rain poured down last April, the city’s pumps were working as fast as they could to move water from the sanitary sewers into the Chicago Avenue station, he said — and it wasn’t enough.

“So us folks here down at the bottom of the hill backed up. We were getting raw sewage in our basements,” he said.

He is encouraged by the series of steps the city has taken to remedy the problem over the past year, including a recent replacement of the pumps with much larger versions.

In Cress Creek, where the high water table accelerates sanitary sewer overflows, the city pushed up the schedule for relining some 10 miles of clay sewer pipes. The $2.4 million is fortifying the piping with a thick polyester, epoxy-enhanced material that Bryson, a water pollution control expert, thinks will help.

“I certainly hope so, because last year in Cress Creek and Cress Creek Commons because we had a couple hundred homes that had sewage in the basement,” he said.

Floodplain woes

In many places where residents arrange subsidized coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, property owners are likely to see higher bills. Policy holders who long have enjoyed relatively affordable rates under the debt-ridden federal program probably will see premiums rise steadily in the coming years, despite a rate-relief law signed March 21 by President Barack Obama that will soften the blow for those who were hit hardest.

For years, affordable flood insurance was offered for homes and businesses built before there were many rules about building close to the water. But claims paid by the NFIP in recent years have far surpassed the premiums collected, putting the program in a $24 billion flood of red ink.

Congress pressed to change that in 2012, passing a law requiring 1.1 million policyholders to start paying rates based on the true risk of flooding for their properties. After public outcry, the lawmakers scaled it back with legislation that would subject affected homeowners to annual premium increases capped at 18 percent until the government is collecting enough to pay out claims. Owners of businesses and second homes face mandatory increases of 25 percent each year — in Illinois, that’s 4,000 policyholders — until they start paying a rate based on the actual risk of flooding.

According to Mike Drews of Aurora, the National Association of Realtors had been working for several months with members of the House and Senate to revise a prior bill that could have brought homeowners even higher premiums. Drews, a broker with Charles B. Doss in Oswego, serves as treasurer of the Illinois Association of Realtors.

Drews noted that within a four-year window, FEMA is supposed to be conducting a study and surveys to update existing floodplain maps and information, to make them accurate.

An Associated Press analysis shows that half of the nearly 49,000 Illinois policies issued through the NFIP are paying subsidized rates set to rise as those discounts are shaved or eliminated.

Uncertain impact

Those affected include 20,000 holders of primary residential policies facing up to 18 percent increases, though exactly how much is murky. Illinoisans pay $44 million in premiums.

At the same time, the updated FEMA data could reduce premiums or remove some properties from redefined floodplains, a year or more from now.

Selective Insurance recently put out a “Flood News” memo that states, “FEMA and the NFIP are actively working to analyze the changes this new law brings and determine how each element will be implemented. At this point, industry analysts believe it may take 12-18 months before FEMA begins issuing refund checks or executing against any of the bill’s primary changes.”

Regardless of the potential FEMA safety net, Costello said after having foul water come into his basement so many times, he’s held off on finishing the lower level.

“I’m going to wait and see what happens this time, before I go ahead and finish the project I started almost 10 years ago,” he said.

He has reasonable confidence that the city has addressed the problem for Huffman Street residents now, but the proof will be in the pudding — meaning the next 100-year rain event.

“That’ll be the test for me,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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