Originally created 03/13/98

Flood victims regret not renewing insurance policies



ALBANY, Ga. -- When Elza Brown's house flooded in 1994, he bought flood insurance. Assuming it wouldn't flood again in Albany in his lifetime, he opted not to renew when it expired last year.

Other area residents made the same decision -- and regretted it as the Flint River spilled over its banks this week.

"I regret it the most," the 61-year-old Brown said Thursday outside the flood shelter where he's been staying.

To receive federal grants and loans after the 1994 flooding caused by Tropical Storm Alberto, Albany-area residents had to buy three-year flood insurance policies for about $150. Only about half of them renewed last year, according to insurance agents in this southwest Georgia city.

Those like Brown -- who received $12,200 to rebuild his home but decided he couldn't afford to renew the policy last year when the premium rose to more than $300 -- will have to apply again for federal help.

The only way to get flood insurance is through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Standard homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.

"That's unfortunately the message that we keep hammering away to people who've never bothered to read the fine print of their policies," FEMA spokesman Mark Stevens said Thursday.

In Dougherty County, 2,135 residents have flood insurance policies totaling $156 million in coverage, Stevens said.

Some Albany residents have called city offices and insurance agents this week trying to buy FEMA flood insurance. But there is a 30-day waiting period, which means those who don't already have policies will lose their possessions.

"The next flood, they'll be set," said Albany Planning Manager Charles Ball. "They assumed ... they were beyond the danger and didn't need flood insurance."

Some flood refugees said it's not a matter of need, it's a matter of cost.

"I thought about (renewing) it last year. I decided to wait a while," said Juanita Quimby, 51, a mother of two. "I couldn't afford it."

Ms. Quimby's income is about $800 a month, mainly from federal aid, and her rent and utility bills take up about $400 of that.

Stevens said the national average cost for flood insurance is $315 per year.

Jerome Hubbard, an Albany insurance agent based near one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by this week's flooding, said only about half of his 50 policy holders renewed last year.

"The situation is going to be terrible, probably worse than it was for a lot of them" in 1994, he said. "When times get hard, that's one of the first things that goes -- their insurance.

"The key is whether they'll keep it again. I hope they realize it could happen again."

The Flint River was at 32.84 feet Thursday, down about four feet from Tuesday but still more than 13 feet above flood stage. It is expected to crest Saturday around noon, although the predicted crest was lowered Thursday from 38.5 feet to 37.5 feet.

In the summer of 1994, the Flint hit 44 feet in the worst flood in memory.

Although water levels in some neighborhoods had dropped Thursday, city officials asked people not to return home.

Bob Carle, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., said releases from the dam at Lake Blackshear in neighboring Crisp County will cause the river to rise again before Saturday.

Local officials are hoping Wednesday's visit by Gov. Zell Miller and FEMA Director James Lee Witt means something will be done to help Albany prevent serious flooding in the future.

They have been pressing for federal funds to build a system of levees, which could cost $20 million to $40 million. But their application for $9.5 million in FEMA funds to build a dike was turned down this year because FEMA believes levees and [filtered word] don't work, said Ken Davis, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Instead, the federal agency favors buyouts of flood-prone homes, allowing the homeowners to move to higher ground. More than 400 properties in Dougherty County were in the process of being bought out when the latest floods hit, said Terry Lunn, GEMA's hazard mitigation director.



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