By Bruce Alpert, NOLA.com
The House Wednesday night approved an amendment that bars FEMA from using its budget to implement a 2012 law that ends subsidized flood insurance rates for policyholders who, through no fault of their own, are remapped into a "below base flood elevation" status. It passed 281-146, but still needs Senate approval to become law.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, the sponsor of the amendment to a pending Homeland Security funding bill, said the clause has led to "unaffordable increases" for some flood insurance recipients. Cassidy mentioned some Louisiana residents are reporting that their future premium will run as high as $20,000 a year.
Some homes targeted for huge premium hikes never flooded, an indication Cassidy said that FEMA is using bad methodology with food maps that determine rates.
"I do urge passage of the amendment both for providing that we can have a functional government and for the sake of homeowners who will be terribly affected if we don't do anything," Cassidy said.
Voting for the Cassidy amendment were 187 Democrats and 94 Republicans. Voting no were 125 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Some Republicans objected to the amendment, saying Congress, by large margins, approved changes in the flood insurance program last year to make it financially sustainable. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said the same Louisiana members, now seeking to delay implementation of one part of the flood insurance law, all voted for it.
"If for some reason my car runs into things - accidentally -- my insurance rates are going to go up," Westmoreland said. That same principle, he said, should apply to the federal flood insurance program.
But Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who helped author the 2012 flood insurance bill, said she anticipated higher rates for some homeowners, but not the astronomical increases some homeowners are facing. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, told his colleagues that one South Louisiana homeowner reported his rates would jump from $365 a year to $28,000.
Waters said it might be easy for some members to oppose the Cassidy amendment, particularly if those facing "unaffordable premium increases" don't live in their districts. But member of Congress, Waters said, have a responsibility to take note of needs throughout the country and deal with the most urgent with fairness and compassion.
Rep Michael Grimm, R-N.Y, said the increases aren't just happening in Louisiana. He said he's hearing concerns about big premiums increases in his district, which includes Staten Island and Brooklyn -- two New York City boroughs that suffered huge property losses during Super Storm Sandy.
Richmond said sometimes the "reality" of legislation isn't apparent when Congress passes a bill. That's the case, he said, with the 2012 flood insurance measure.
"If we don't change the law, reality is going to set in and people are going to lose their homes," Richmond said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said "the perception is that people facing large increases flooded multiple times." But he mentioned one community in his congressional district for which FEMA didn't, in its flood maps, reflect the benefit of locally built levees.
"That community did not flood, did not flood in Hurricane Katrina, did not flood in Hurricane Rita, didn't flood in Hurricane Isaac, and yet, if you look at what FEMA has done... they don't even recognize that that flood protection system exists," Scalise said. That's true for a number of South Louisiana communities, he said.
In response, FEMA recently said it would redo maps to include the flood-control benefits of locally funded flood protection projects.
In urging defeat for the amendment, Westmorland, the Georgia Republican, said that FEMA has already told members that the large rate increases cited earlier by agency officials are inaccurate. If there are eventual problems with rates, he said they can be fixed through deliberations in the House Financial Services Committee, where the original 2012 flood insurance legislation originated.
The amendment drew praise from two area parish presidents.
"With the passage of Rep. Bill Cassidy's amendment to the Homeland Security Bill last night, we are beginning to see our work to modify the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 pay off," said St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said. "The potentially crippling impact to homeowners across the country should be corrected, and this amendment is the first step in accomplishing this. We all understand the need to reform a broken program, but not at the cost of families losing their homes and banks going into default."
"Parish leaders here in Louisiana, and county leaders from throughout the nation, should urge the U.S. Senate to pass this legislation, which passed in the house by a 2 to 1 margin, to prevent what could be a second housing and banking crisis,'' Brister added. "Without this modification to the Act, we could see flood insurance rates so high, home ownership would be out of reach for everyday Americans."
In St. Charles Parish, President V.J. St. Pierre was also pleased.
"St. Charles Parish is one of the areas most affected by Biggert-Waters, so I am glad to see that this amendment will give our coalition the time it needs to encourage a comprehensive solution for property owners in my parish and around the country who are negatively affected by the proposed astronomical insurance rates,'' he said. "Now we must focus on the Senate passing a similar amendment to ensure this legislation becomes law. Ultimately, we must pass a permanent fix to Biggert-Waters that will allow our residents to continue to live in their communities and hold onto their investments."