Congress likely to extend flood insurance three months


WASHINGTON — The National Flood Insurance Program appears headed for a three-month extension.

The U.S. Senate approved the measure Wednesday as part of a bundle of legislation, including an influx of $7.9 billion of disaster money for FEMA and a three-month agreement to fund the federal government and lift the debt ceiling.

Senators voted 80-17 to pass the measure, with both Louisianans casting “yes” votes. It now heads to the House, where lawmakers quickly approved an initial Hurricane Harvey aid bill on Wednesday and are expected to pass the larger deal before week’s end.

The legislation comes as Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, barrels through the Caribbean and appears headed toward Florida. FEMA officials have warned the disaster-response agency was stretched short of money as it responded to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation and prepared for another potential catastrophe.

The Senate bill includes about $15 billion in combined disaster relief money, nearly half for FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

President Donald Trump struck the deal Wednesday with top Capitol Hill Democrats over objections of some in his own party.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides nearly all flood insurance coverage for homeowners and businesses in the U.S., was set to expire on Sept. 30.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the short-term extension is needed to buy time to negotiate a comprehensive deal on the future of the program. Lawmakers have been deeply split on how to handle the program, which is $25 billion in debt largely because of massive payouts following hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

“With the Gulf Coast still recovering from Harvey, Irma hitting Florida and another hurricane in the Atlantic, Congress and the president did the right thing,” Cassidy said.

“This short-term NFIP extension prevents a lapse in coverage during hurricane season. This coverage is essential for Louisiana,” said U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.. “Policyholders need to be able to afford their flood insurance, and they deserve the long-term certainty that I will continue working to provide.”

Most had hoped to reach an agreement on a long-term reauthorization of the program, but the looming deadline and a lengthy list of other items for Congress to tackle posed serious challenges.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, criticized the brief extension, saying it fails to provide enough certainty for homeowners who are building after their properties were hit by Hurricane Harvey or the 2016 Louisiana floods. Graves has pushed for a longer, if still temporary, extension.

Caitlin Berni, vice president of policy and communications for Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group that has focused extensively on flood insurance issues, said she’d hoped Congress would pass a full reauthorization with a raft of reforms before the deadline.

But given the time crunch in Washington, Berni said, “this is the next-best solution.”

The package deal — which combined flood insurance with money for FEMA following Hurricane Harvey, an extension of the federal government’s borrowing authority and a temporary government-wide operating budget — clears many of the most pressing issues from Congress’ crowded September schedule.

Louisiana’s delegation has been largely united on pushing for affordable, continuous flood insurance coverage for homeowners.

But other lawmakers have called for changes that would make the cost of insurance more expensive for some homeowners.

Conservatives have pointed to the program’s deb, while some environmental groups complain it encourages development in floodplains.

A package of bills to reauthorize the program backed by the chair of the committee that oversees the program,

U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the committee that has considered reforms, has backed reforms that would open the flood insurance market to private companies and end or severely restrict the practice of grandfathering, which allows homeowners to continue paying lower rates after new elevation maps show the risk of flooding has increased.

Most of the package is opposed by lawmakers from flood-prone areas, including Louisiana, because of concerns that its provisions could increase costs for many homeowners and kick others out of the program.

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