SARASOTA -- Alarmed and angered by soaring flood insurance rates, Manatee and Sarasota residents jammed U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan's roundtable discussion Friday to plead for relief.
"We are being punished. It's going to devastate our state," said Longboat Key Mayor Jim Brown.
Recent flood insurance rate hikes are "deal killers right now," said Joe Adamaitis of the Gulf Coast Mortgage Brokers Association.
With rates on some properties jumping from $3,000 a year to $30,000, borrowers are being told to first find out where they stand in the flood zone, Adamaitis said.
"This is a big issue that faces buyer and seller," he said
The story was the same from Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston.
"It's a critical issue for us. People are scared to death," Poston said, adding that investors, out of concern for exorbitant rate hikes, have walked away from possible deals, such as one for the 24-acre Rivera Southshore property.
Buchanan, R-Sarasota, sought to reassure the crowd at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport's Dan McClure Auditorium that a bipartisan effort is afoot to delay implementation of flood in
"We are going to have a bipartisan meeting on Nov. 21 to try to move this thing forward," Buchanan said, adding that he is hopeful action can be taken by the end of the year to delay the new rates.
In addition, Buchanan said he wants see an affordability study completed in the next 18 months.
Because virtually every portion of the country is susceptible to floods, not just coastal areas, there is a sense of urgency and the political will in Congress to roll back the increases, he said.
Manatee County's new flood insurance rate map mandates a five-year phased increase with an annual 20 percent cap for all homes in the Special Flood Hazard Areas.
A decade of major storms, including Katrina and Sandy, left the 45-year-old flood insurance program $24 billion in debt. Some estimates put the debt at $25 billion.
"We are hearing stories of increases of 300 to 400 percent, and 1,000 percent," Buchanan said.
An estimated 30,000 people in Manatee-Sarasota are directly affected by the increases, he said.
Florida has the most flood insurance policies in the nation -- more than 2 million -- and the second largest number of claims since 1978.
The rate hikes are a major concern to Manatee County, which has the 10th most subsidized flood insurance program in the state, and 11,264 policies.
Transactions have been cancelled because of the rate hikes, said David Clapp of the Sarasota Realtors Association.
Unintended consequences include loss of income, declining home values, and apprehension over being able to maintain required escrow balances, Clapp said.
"We have to stop the insanity," Clapp said.
The back-breaking flood insurance rates are not only scaring away buyers, but are sending home values down.
"Older homes in flood zones are automatically getting a decrease in value," said Jamie Meirowsky of Manatee Independent Insurance Agents.
Buchanan agreed that the rate hikes would put a lot of people out of their homes.
"There is no way that we can raise rates 1,000 percent," he said.
Buchanan said he is fairly confident that Congress can work together to delay the new flood insurance rates.
"We want to get it right, but we want to get it done quickly, too," he said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1