As Hurricane Irma churned in the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean this week, insurance companies were flooded with calls from homeowners.
In one day recently, when typically the firm would receive about 300 calls, Wells Insurance counted 1,200, said sales executive Stephen Lewis. The 100-year-old company founded in Wilmington usually sees a dramatic increase in calls whenever a Category 4 or 5 hurricane might be on its way, he said.
For clients with mortgages and homes in certain flood zones, Wells Insurance mainly goes through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to connect them with coverage, Lewis explained. On Thursday, along with approving $15 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief, the U.S. Senate also approved legislation temporarily extending NFIP, which was set to expire Sept. 30.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved the measure Friday afternoon and sent it to President Donald Trump, who was expected to sign it into law.
Hurricane Irma appeared to be on a westward track as of Friday afternoon, possibly heading toward more western parts of North Carolina after its expected blow to Florida. But because of the Cape Fear region's vulnerability to such storms, the future of the NFIP has been on the minds of local officials and those who work in the real estate industry in recent months.
This week's extension delays discussion of reforms, "but it keeps the program in place, which is the important part," said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, a Wilmington-based business advocacy group. "If it were to expire at the end of September, it would instantaneously impact closings and sales because sales in process would be held up. You couldn't get a flood policy, which is a component that you have to have to get a mortgage if a house is in a floodplain. It would complicate things immediately as of the first day that it wasn't in place."
Local and federal officials have been monitoring the increasingly complicated issue and lobbying for a solution that won't damage the Wilmington area's currently healthy real estate market.
"You're talking about how do you fix a progam that has billions and billions of dollars worth of losses and also how you move forward in a viable fashion to have a program with shared risk that allows grandfathering and coverage of new construction and all those kinds of things," Newman said.
The NFIP has been a centerpiece of the Cape Fear Realtors' national efforts on behalf of coastal homebuyers and Realtors.
“Last week we sent a strong message to the House through a Call for Action, with thousands of calls being made to members of congress from Realtors,” said Steve Hobbs, chairman of the Cape Fear Realtors' Governmental Affairs Committee.
The organization's push for a permanent renewal will continue in coming months, said CFR's Chief Operating Officer Shane Johnson.
Danielle Smotkin, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC), said in an email Friday, "Congressman Rouzer has been working with leadership of the House of Representatives, including the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, to ensure reforms made to the National Flood Insurance Program address its long-term financial viability without disadvantaging the residents of Southeastern North Carolina. The National Flood Insurance Program has been extended until December 8, 2017. Congressman Rouzer will continue to work with his colleagues and leadership until a suitable, long-term plan is finalized."
Some say a potential solution is opening up the market to more private insurers.
"It's good to have competition in markets as long as the competition is going to pay out if there is a disaster," Lewis said. "It's just making sure those companies are financially stable and are going to stand by their insured ... I feel like competition in any kind of insurance market is good."