Having flood insurance is a way of life for people who live on the region's barrier islands.

And thanks to a law approved over the summer, that way of life may remain stable for a few years more.

Congress and President Barack Obama signed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 in early summer. The law came after several years in which Congress briefly extended the nation's flood insurance program - 17 times since 2008, while allowing it to lapse twice.

The law is good and bad, said Rick Bloom, a licensed insurance agent with Bloom Realty & Insurance Inc. in Atlantic City.

On one hand, the law ensures that the program will not run short and risk disrupting pending property sales. On the other hand, the law allows officials to raise flood insurance rates by as much as 20 percent in a given year, twice the current level.

Bloom said federal officials already have told him to expect 10 percent higher rates for policies he writes starting this month.

Flood insurance can be a significant issue for homeowners in older communities, such as Atlantic City, where much of Bloom's business is based. Some people in the resort already are paying in excess of $2,000 a year for coverage, in part because the communities are older and have not been rebuilt to conform to new flood regulations.

"It's not like Ocean City, where you've had this renaissance of tearing down and construction," he said.

Bloom said the serial lapses have had a minimal effect on his business. Federal officials indicated that they would honor the dates of the policy written, even if the program wasn't technically in effect at the time.

"They didn't want to shut down the real estate industry," he said.

Congress has required since 1968 that all federally regulated or insured lenders require flood insurance for properties located within a 100-year flood zone.

While these properties have a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year, that risk ratchets up to a 26 percent chance over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage. Flood insurance is also available to other properties at less risk, but it is not mandatory.

The National Flood Insurance Program now covers 5.6 million homeowners nationwide and 235,000 in New Jersey. Almost half the state's policies are in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties.

About 21,000 towns across the country currently participate in the program, including all but five New Jersey municipalities, none of which are in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, southern Burlington or southern Ocean counties.

However, statistics show that of the 34 towns in New Jersey where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid out more than $10 million, only eight of them are in this region.

Ocean City has received the most locally, $21.9 million as of the end of July. Even that is just a small fraction of flood insurance benefits for some larger towns, such as Wayne, Passaic County, where river flooding cost FEMA $118.8 million between 1978 and July 31.

The agency has paid out more than $1.6 billion since 1978 to cover flood damages in the state, and statistics show that all but six communities have received some funding.

Municipalities can lower their flood insurance premiums by as much as 45 percent by taking steps that broadly lower the risk in their communities. These steps can include public information campaigns, improving existing maps and passing local laws designed to increase flood preparation and reduce flood damage.

In practice, the best New Jersey towns have been able to achieve is 20 percent reductions of the top-risk rates. According to FEMA's records as of May, that level of reduction has been reached by Beach Haven, Long Beach Township, Avalon, Brigantine, Longport and Stafford Township.

Flood insurance is growing increasingly expensive, said Sheldon Grace, a broker at Grace Properties in Absecon.

"It's important when you need it, you know what I mean," he said.

Grace said he saw insurance coverage for his home in the Sweetwater section of Mullica Township rise from $1,200 to $1,440 for the current year. He raised his deductible to $5,000 to lower that rate.

Jamie Sofroney is a broker with the Landis Co. and handles real estate in Cape May County, primarily in Sea Isle City.

"It's obviously paramount," he said of flood insurance. "These buildings have to be covered in the event of flooding or a hurricane."

Flood insurance is mandatory in Sea Isle City, which is entirely within a 100-year flood zone.

"Even it if weren't, it just wouldn't be worth it (not to get it) in case of a catastrophic storm," he said.

Contact Derek Harper:

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