With the National Flood Insurance Program struggling to contain an $18 billion dam burst of debt, Robert J. Wiley is convinced that homeowners in the borough of Eddystone are being forced, unfairly, to stick their fingers in the hole in the dike.
In August, Wiley was told that he had to buy federal flood insurance - a $600 annual premium - even though his Delaware County town had no history of flooding.
Abutting the Delaware River and scored by the Ridley and Crum Creeks, Eddystone is a tiny piece of one of the most ambitious mapping projects ever undertaken in the United States. For the last eight years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the troubled insurance program, has been redrawing the nation's stock of flood maps for 19,000 towns.
Dangerously outdated, the previous maps not only left lives and homes in harm's way, but also contributed to the NFIP's descent into a fiscal abyss. With the insurance program due to expire at the end of August, Congress is trying to figure out how - indeed, whether - to keep it afloat.
But even the NFIP's sharpest legislative critics support the remapping as necessity. The $5 billion project is about 70 percent complete nationwide; in this region, only Montgomery, Bucks, and Burlington Counties' maps are yet to be finalized.
But at ground level, not everyone is happy with the results. Across the country, the new renderings are puzzling and infuriating owners who have suddenly found their properties in floodplains - and are compelled to buy the government's special insurance if their mortgages are federally insured.
The maps have been particularly vexing in Eddystone, with a mostly working-class population of 2,400. For Wiley's money, FEMA botched the job there.
According to an analysis by senior Delaware County planner Shaun Bollig, six parcels were removed from the newly drawn "special hazard zone" - an area in which a "100-year flood" has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. But 107 properties, including 22 on Wiley's street, were added.
"This is theft," complained Wiley, who owns a 19th-century twin in the 700 block of Eddystone Avenue, about a half-mile from the Delaware and roughly 500 yards from Ridley Creek.
FEMA officials "want us to pay for their losses" on the insurance program, said Eugene M. Krupa, who owns the twin with Wiley. "They know damn well we're not in any danger here."
Since 1978, in fact, the NFIP has paid out just $180,000 in flood damages in Eddystone, compared with $24 million in Yardley, Bucks County.
"We know there's never been a flood there," agreed David Bollinger, hazard-mitigation specialist with FEMA's Philadelphia office and the regional point man for the insurance program. But, he said, a FEMA-commissioned engineering analysis determined that portions of Eddystone would be at risk should the river, creek, or both slosh over.
"We're looking at volume of water. We're trying to warn you of that risk," said Bollinger, who has attended countless public meetings in his five-state region. "I've never caught so much heck for warning people that you may have a problem."
But while the maps are better, Bollinger acknowledged, they are still imperfect. Greater precision would be prohibitively expensive, said Jeff Featherstone, director of Temple University's Center for Sustainable Communities. In a pilot study, Featherstone's group determined that truly detailed mapping would cost about $38 billion - more than seven times FEMA's allotment.
Nationwide, according to Bollinger, more parcels have been removed from floodplains than added. That holds true across Delaware County. Bollig's analysis shows that 2,483 properties were moved out of a flood zone and 1,653 moved in.
So Eddystone is something of an anomaly.
"It was really a blow to some of these people," said Francie Howat, the borough manager. "We're trying to do what we can to help."
Tom Reilly, who lives a few blocks from Wiley, now has to shell out $1,890 a year for the insurance. "I was obviously mad," he said. "We never had anything near a flood here."
Flood zones are moving targets, affected by natural processes, changes in rainfall patterns, paving, and development. But, Bollinger said, most of the new flood designations are the result of better mapping, and chances are that people now in flood zones were at risk all along.
Eddystone, Bollinger assured, is not being used to help pay down the NFIP debt - because there is no realistic possibility of the program's ever repaying the U.S. Treasury. Even before the catastrophic spring flooding in the South, the debt stood at $17.8 billion. That was six times what the NFIP typically collects in annual premiums on 5.6 million policies covering $1.24 trillion in property.
How did the insurance program wind up in such a fix?
Decades ago, the private market bailed out of the flood insurance business because flooding was so pervasive. The government stepped in as the insurer of last resort, and set out in the 1970s to map all flood zones.
Insurance companies remained involved, in that they wrote the policies. But all the risk was assumed by the U.S. government, said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, an NFIP expert at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
In some years, the payouts were supported by premiums, but the devastating 2005 hurricane season drowned NFIP in red ink, and it hasn't surfaced since.
While the debate over the future of flood insurance continues in Washington, Wiley and his Eddystone neighbors are feeling victimized.
Delaware County's new map was released in November 2009. The next summer, Wiley got his notice. His first quote for a premium, $247.42 a month, was higher than the principal payment on his mortgage. When he refinanced, his new lender gave him a lower insurance quote.
He complained to FEMA officials, he said, but "every time, they sent me more forms."
Property owners have the right to appeal, said Bollinger, adding that most win.
The catch is the appeals process is expensive, requiring documentation and engineering studies. That can cost thousands - a price borne by the property owners.
"It's a very complicated program," Bollinger said. "We're not going to tell you it isn't."