ANCHORAGE — One small-town Alaska mayor worries that rising costs for national flood insurance could be another reason for people to abandon life in rural Alaska.
“Most of the houses in town are going through $500 or something a month to heat their homes, and you add about $200 in electricity bills,” said Aniak Mayor Jacque Longpre.
With higher insurance costs heaped on, it’s getting close to a point where people won’t be able to afford to live in places such as Aniak, a town about 320 miles west of Anchorage that’s subject to frequent ice jams that can cause flooding, he said.
“There’s a certain tipping point where that really starts to happen, and I truly believe we’re getting there,” Longpre said.
Two years ago, Congress passed a law attempting rid the troubled National Flood Insurance Program of $24 billion in debt that unexpectedly socked many Americans with unaffordable premium increases.
The 2012 law did away with the low-priced insurance policies that had long been available and required policyholders to pay rates truly reflective of the flood risk to their homes and businesses — but the stunning rise in premiums led to howls of protest.
A bill signed by President Barack Obama on Friday rolls back the instant hit to the pocketbook, but more than 1 million policyholders across the nation will still see hefty rate increases phased in over time.
A plan to hike rates by 25 percent per year on about 250,000 vacation homes and businesses was left unchanged from the 2012 law. At least another 820,000 homeowners will see their premiums rise up to 18 percent a year until the insurance program is collecting enough to cover what it has historically been paying out in claims.
Across Alaska, 442 National Flood Insurance Program policyholders face premium increases.
There are 23 such policyholders in Aniak facing rate hikes in the community of about 500 people, mostly of Yup’ik Eskimos and Tanaina Athabascans. Of those now receiving the discounts, 20 are facing annual increases of up to 18 percent and three face an annual increase of 25 percent.
Aniak is located on the south bank of the Kuskokwim River and at the head of the Aniak Slough.
There is a dike that partially protects the town from frequent and vicious ice jams from spring breakup.
“We have a lot of homes right on the river that have a lower grade than that dike,” Longpre said. “Without that dike, we’d have big ice chunks smash into houses on bad years.”
The dike was originally built in the 1950s by the Federal Aviation Administration to protect the town’s air strip. The FAA transferred the airport to the state transportation department about a decade later.
Longpre said there is disagreement on which entity is responsible for dike maintenance, and the city believes the state should foot the bill since the transportation inherited the structure. A state DOT spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
“The city just doesn’t have the budgeting to maintain a large project like that,” Longpre said.
It doesn’t help that a $50,000 state subsidy to help with high fuel costs disappeared from state funding this year, even though fuel costs are higher than ever, he said.
“I really think in the next five to 10 years, if something happens with our dike, people won’t even be able to get insurance, which means they won’t be able to sell houses back and forth using banks. It’s going to be pretty serious,” he said.