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Bill easing flood insurance hikes will help Highlands County

SEBRING - Less than two years after major legislation that reformed the federal government's much-criticized flood insurance program, the Feds took a do-over.

On Friday, President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan bill, scaling back the possibly massive flood insurance premium hikes faced by hundreds of thousands of homeowners. The measure also allows below-market insurance rates for home buyers with taxpayer-subsidized policies.

The legislation will be welcomed most in Florida, where 2 million policies are in force totaling $477 billion. The peninsular state has 1,350 miles of Atlantic coastline - more than any other except the even-bigger Alaskan peninsula, which juts 6,640 miles into the Pacific.

In all 50 states, 5.5 million policies were written for $1.3 trillion worth of insurance.

In Highlands County, where there are 100 named lakes, 1,062 policies covered $241 million in homes, businesses and their contents.

As of Dec. 31, 2013, nine policies in Avon Park totaling $964,000 and 17 in Sebring worth $1.4 million are in force, according Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics.

"This is a victory for all Florida families who have been impacted by the ongoing uncertainty and faced the possibility of paying devastating rate increases," Gov. Rick Scott said.

Both Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio voted for the bill Thursday.

"This bill is an important first step toward giving Florida homeowners some relief from a massive, unaffordable hike in their flood insurance premiums," U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, said on March 4 after the House approved the bill. "Passing this legislation is critical to maintaining growth in Florida's housing market and its entire economy."

However, Rooney noted, "it does not solve the problem. What we need is a long-term solution to make flood insurance more affordable for middle-class families and small businesses in Florida and across the country."

The legislation overhauled the flood insurance program that passed almost unanimously two years ago. Those 2012 changes were aimed at weaning hundreds of thousands of homeowners off subsidized rates and required extensively updating the flood maps used to set premiums.

However, its implementation has stirred anxiety among many homeowners along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in flood plains, many of whom are threatened with unaffordable rate increases.

If coastal insurance premiums had risen in cities like Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, it could have caused a minor land rush to inland counties, Lake Placid councilwoman Debra Worley suggested.

"If you were going to move somewhere, you would come to the middle of the state," she said. "It will impact us too, but not nearly as much as the coasts."

Grandfathered properties - originally built to code - were subsequently found to be at greater flood risk. If those homes had been un-grandfathered, what are currently below-market rates could have quadrupled because the 2012 reforms had required premiums increases to actuarially sound rates over five years.

The new legislation preserves grandfather status and caps annual premium increases at 18 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this story