ANNADA — Willie Richter has lived in the same house in West Alton since he was 10. Now the mayor of that small, blue-collar town nestled behind levees near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, wonders how much longer he'll be able to stay.
Premiums through a federal flood insurance program are going up. Way up. Nearly everyone has the required flood insurance in West Alton, and nearly everyone is concerned.
"I pay around $2,000 a year now," Richter, 44, said. "My assumption is it's going to end up around $13,000. I'm going to get to a spot where I can't afford it."
After people who live in flood plains protested, President Barack Obama signed a law Friday putting the brakes on a 2012 overhaul that was supposed to end costly government subsidies for flood insurance. While the law offers instant relief for homeowners whose premiums soared by thousands of dollars overnight, the reprieve is temporary.
As many as 4,000 policyholders now paying subsidized rates in Missouri — owners of second homes and businesses — are going to face a 25 percent increase every year until their premiums reach rates based on actual flood risks. Rates for about 6,900 other policyholders, many of them homeowners who live near the rivers, will see rate jumps, too, though how much isn't certain.
Many people who live in the flood plain are poor or on fixed income. Dropping insurance isn't an option for most because banks require mortgage holders to have flood insurance. Selling the property and relocating is problematic, too, as real estate experts and homeowners wonder who'd buy property that costs so much to insure.
West Alton residents including Richter and Patrick Brass don't want to move out. They like living near the scenic rivers, where fishing is easy, the eagles come to nest in the winter and the barges chug by.
"If this goes through, we'll pretty much eventually lose the house," said Brass, who received a letter saying the flood insurance premium on his $150,000 home was expected to rise to $11,000 from $2,000 annually.
"You're kind of in a pickle," said Brass, who has a wife and four children. "Almost a grand a month — who can afford that?"
Most people who saw dramatic increases in rates— like the Brass family — are set to have those rates rolled back for now under the law signed Friday, which delays or sets aside parts of the 2012 law that required anyone who bought property in a flood zone to be subject immediately to a risk-based rate. For some, that relief will be permanent, while others will face annual increases of up to 18 percent. Experts say no one knows for sure how high the rates could go.
The National Flood Insurance Program is $24 billion in debt. Critics say that's largely due to rates that don't match the risk, and that reform is necessary.
John Hark, emergency management coordinator in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, recalled that after the record-breaking flood of 1993 people living in the flood plain were encouraged to buy the insurance, in part because of its low cost.
"Now, to have them penalized because of a change in the way the game's played — it just seems wrong to me," Hark said.
Blake Foster has no plans to leave the flood plain. Foster, 66, bought a home along the Mississippi River near Annada, about 70 miles north of St. Louis, nearly a decade ago. Situated atop a large concrete garage, the living quarters sit 4 feet above the 1993 flood level. His grandkids fish from the banks and Foster and his wife, Nancy, have a picture-perfect view of a nearby island.
People with elevated living areas will generally still qualify for cheap rates. Foster doesn't yet know how much he'll have to pay, but on his fixed retirement income, he's worried.
"It's not fair how much they charge," Foster said. "It's so expensive already."
So expensive that Richter wonders how many neighbors will simply pack up and head out.
"We're going to have a town with a lot of empty homes," Richter said.