Representatives from 14 parishes head to Washington, D.C., to rally for flood insurance cost relief

A delegation of parish presidents and representatives from 14 parishes across Louisiana has descended upon Washington, D.C., to meet with the federal lawmakers to rally against FEMA’s flood insurance rate maps and the Biggert-Waters Act, which could spell astronomical flood insurance rate increases for many communities throughout the state.

Greater New Orleans, Inc., an economic development group, organized the trip for the delegation, which includes parish presidents from St. Charles, St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James, St. Mary, Jefferson, St. Martin and Lafourche; and representatives from Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes, among others. The group will meet Tuesday and Wednesday with Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Cedric Richmond, D-La., Charles Boustany, R-La., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rodney Alexander, R-La., as well as officials from FEMA, and the National Flood Insurance Program.

For the parish leaders, a primary purpose of the meetings is to explain to federal law makers and FEMA representatives the grave consequences of FEMA’s recently released preliminary flood insurance rate maps, which do not recognize any levee systems that are not officially certified by the Army Corps of Engineers regardless of the protection the levees may offer. As a consequence, residents living behind such levees — who under previous flood maps were located in zones that required nominal flood insurance, if at all — now face insurance increases in the order of tens of thousands of dollars each year.

“St. Charles Parish is fighting for its future economic stability, and residents are fighting to stay in their homes,” St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said.

St. Charles Parish was issued its preliminary flood insurance rate map last December. At a town hall meeting in March, insurance experts and FEMA representatives explained that the new flood maps could spell insurance increases for many west bank residents to the tune of $15,000 a year.

The projected increases are widespread across the parish, though the most dramatic are relegated to the Sunset Drainage District on the west bank, where 16.4 miles of levees reflected in FEMA’s previous flood maps are no longer included. Those whose homes were built in compliance with the previous base flood elevation are now considered to be 7-, 8-, 9-feet below the new base flood elevation.

Just two months after the preliminary flood maps were unveiled to the public, the parish’s housing market in the Sunset Drainage District and surrounding areas has already begun to suffer.

“This is serious,” St. Pierre said. “I can’t see how they can let this happen. The number of people who will be driven out of business, and what will happen to these parishes – it just can’t happen.”

Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph said that the new mapping system has been economically “devastating.”

“Our levees have protected our community through hurricane after hurricane, for FEMA to threaten to do this is unacceptable.”

In addition to St. Charles Parish, St. Bernard, Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes also received new flood insurance rate maps in the past six months. In Plaquemines Parish, the new maps place most residents living outside of Belle Chase — the only parish area with corps-recognized levee protection, built to withstand the “100-year storm” – 10-plus feet below new base flood elevation levels, despite being protected by unaccredited levees.

“Right now, if it’s not 100-year protection, then they are not factoring it into the flood maps,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said. “In addition to running the new storm models, we are asking Congress to grandfather in people into the insurance. It is critical that we change the law, and that is what (these meetings are) about.”

The law in question – and perhaps the group’s top priority over the next two days — is the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which was passed in July 2012 in an effort to stabilize the deeply-in-debt National Flood Insurance Program by eliminating subsidies for homeowners in areas considered to be high risk. Under the act, insurance rates for some property owners would increase by 25 percent each year for five years, until the rates are actuarial.

Additionally, the Biggert-Waters Act does away with the practice of “grandfathering” – a provision that exempts property owners whose homes and businesses were built to the base flood elevations outlined in FEMA flood maps adopted prior to the most recent remapping. As part of their trip, parish leaders plan to ask their Congressional delegation to amend the Biggert-Waters Act, and re-institute the practice of grandfathering.

“In a perfect world, I hope they would reconsider all of it,” said St. Bernard Parish Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Graves, who is in D.C. for the meetings. “But I doubt they will. So, I hope they will lessen some of (it’s requirements or penalties).”

St. John The Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom said that during Hurricane Isaac, which flooded vast swaths of the parish and damaged thousands of homes, “our residents were some of the hardest hit…after years of paying into the insurance program without accessing benefits. This is not the time for a rate increase.”

Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess supported the adoption of the parish’s flood maps, which were issued in 2010 and met with “little resistance from the community because of grandfathering…Now, this act takes away the affordability that grandfathering gave them, with no ability to repeal the map changes.”

“If you’re going to change the rules,” said St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, “give us a chance to challenge the maps.”

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