As Congress considers changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, cities on the water say rising premiums present an existential threat.
On October 29, a historic storm laid waste to Central Maine with drenching sheets of rain and wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour. The next day, downed trees and power lines turned my drive to Gardiner, a small city in the Kennebec Valley, into a winding maze of endless detours. The whole way, the radio crackled with dire updates. Half a million without power. Houses swept away in flash floods. Gardiner, it said, had been squarely in the path of the storm.
It took Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, the nationally-accredited Main Street America program that works closely with the city of Gardiner, multiple attempts to navigate a route to his office that morning. When he finally arrived, he found the Kennebec River, visible through his second-story window, still securely within its banks. The last time it flooded the city was in 1987.
When it comes to flooding, the river isn’t what worries Wright. It’s the city’s flood insurance premiums, the steady rise of which presents a far bigger threat to Gardiner’s long-term health. By law, every property in America that falls within FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas must hold a flood insurance policy until its mortgage is fully paid off. Virtually all of these policies are issued through the government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a deeply indebted entity that’s raising premiums to get itself out of the red. For Miami McMansion owners with seven-figure stock portfolios, those rising premiums may be a nuisance. But in working-class cities like Gardiner, they could stall a fledgling economic recovery.
Like former manufacturing cities throughout the Northeast, Gardiner has staked its future on reinventing itself as a magnet for families, digital nomads and entrepreneurs. “We’ve focused on being a welcoming community as people get priced out of the Portland market and become more mobile,” says Wright, a Virginian transplant with an untamable orange beard. “In order to thrive you need talented people who are attracted to a sense of place.” Gardiner’s low cost of living, its walkable downtown and its gritty authenticity form the core of this attraction.