St. John The Baptist Parish News Release

Southeast Louisiana officials urge FEMA to halt flood insurance rate increases

Southeast Louisiana officials urge FEMA to halt flood insurance rate increases

By Mark Schleifstein
The Times Picayune
Thursday, August 8, 2013

Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., joined with parish presidents on Thursday in attempting to explain to a senior FEMA official why dramatic increases in flood insurance rates called for by the Biggert-Waters Act should be delayed for at least a year.

The public officials hope to use the delay to convince Congress to rewrite the 2012 law that was aimed at bringing the flood insurance program back into financial stability, so that coastal residents in Louisiana and elsewhere won't be priced out of their homes and businesses.

Landrieu told FEMA Associate Administrator David Miller that Louisiana's flood risk has been caused by decisions made by the federal government on behalf of the nation's economy, including keeping the mouth of the Mississippi River open to shipping and building the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping shortcut to downtown New Orleans, which was dammed off after Hurricane Katrina.

Landrieu said the national interest on which those projects were based should be factored into the rates charged to Louisiana's residents and businesses.

"I don't think any other state in America has been as disrupted by the federal government as ours," she said at the end of a day-long tour of the levee protection systems. "Start with the channeling of the Mississippi River, which prevented the overflow of sediment that kept wetlands upgraded. And the river provides commerce for everyone in the nation and the world, while our residents are holding on by their fingernails to the high ridges as our marshes go away."

Senators discuss flood insurance U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., FEMA Associate Administrator David Miller, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, discuss an aerial and bus tour of Southeast Louisiana levee systems, including whether FEMA can credit communities for non-standard protection improvements.

Vitter laid out three requests for the administration of President Barack Obama, which he said will be the focus of his questioning of FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate during a Senate Banking Committee hearing next month. In July, Vitter asked Obama to hold up on elevating Fugate to secretary of the Department of Homeland Security until the insurance rate increase concerns are addressed.

Vitter said he wants Obama to delay implementation of flood insurance rate increases called for under Biggert-Waters for a year, just as the president delayed implementation of parts of Obamacare, the federal health care reform law going into effect later this year.

He also wants a halt on releasing new flood insurance rate maps until issues involving their accuracy, such as those raised by parish officials in Louisiana, are worked out.

"Third, we need leadership," Vitter said. "Will they join us in proposing fixes on Biggert-Waters, particularly the affordability issue? So far, quite frankly, the administration has been deafeningly silent on this," he said.

Miller said he heard the messages delivered by Louisiana officials. He said the targeting of five coastal parishes to participate in the agency's experimental Levee Analysis and Mapping Program was aimed at "getting the science right" in drawing flood maps so that they reflect efforts to reduce risk, even when they don't meet the National Flood Insurance Program's traditional 100-year flood standards.

We are willing to help, but we cannot bear the cost of this entire program alone." -- St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom

Under Biggert-Waters, the flood insurance program will continue to provide affordable insurance rates to residents and businesses in areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any year, or a so-called 100-year flood. Costs increase dramatically for areas not meeting the 100-year standard, but the LAMP program is aimed at finding ways to reduce that cost, based on the actual risk reduction provided by levees and other measures.

Miller said the law doesn't directly speak to affordability, the key complaint of Louisiana officials. But it does require the rates to reflect risk.

"What I'm hearing is these huge increases in insurance may reflect risk, but in doing that, what does it do to property values, the structure of community, to current and future homeowners?" he said. "That's part of our affordability discussion.

"The truth is we want to move it toward being right," he said.

And while he said he is unable to propose Biggert-Waters changes directly to Congress, Miller said he'll bring the local officials' message to senior administration officials.

Much of Thursday's tour had two goals: to show the improvements in local levees and drainage systems that aren't being reflected in new flood insurance rate maps, and to show the effects higher rates will have on communities between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Baton Rouge.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel warned during a flyover in National Guard helicopters that increased insurance costs could have dramatic effects on billions of dollars of new investment being made in petrochemical and steel plants in areas that are not yet protected from storm surges.

The increased insurance costs levied on residents who work at those plants could leave them with no place to live, and the businesses with no employees.

The Army Corps of Engineers expects to complete a study in late 2014 aimed at building a new West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee that would protect parts of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James and Ascension parishes from surges in Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. But such a levee could cost as much as $1 billion, with 35 percent of the cost to be paid by the state or local parishes.

Parish officials and members of Congress said such costs could be dramatically reduced if the construction process was controlled by local governments and if the corps' post-Katrina levee standards were reduced.

Windell Curole, executive director of the South Lafourche Levee District, said his levee district has increased levee heights during the past few years at a quarter of the cost of similar corps levees, just by using soil taken from near the levee.

Curole also pointed out during a tour of the district's new Golden Meadow lock that his district has spent millions of dollars raised by parish sales tax increases to build the storm surge-blocking lock and to raise levees during the past dozen years, and the effect of those increased heights are not reflected in proposed flood insurance maps.

Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, said that his parish and the state began building segments of the Morganza to the Gulf levee system around Houma in 2008 after waiting in vain for money from Congress. Those improvements also are not well-represented in the proposed flood maps, he said.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, residents flooded by storm surge during Hurricane Isaac in 2012 may not be able to afford to return to their homes, based on insurance rate quotes of as much as $25,000 a year, said Parish President Natalie Robottom.

"What I hope you all learned is that we are willing to help, but we cannot bear the cost of this entire program alone," she said. "Our communities are attempting to recover now. If they are forced to pay the premiums we predict will come about, they will not be back in their homes."

Several of the public officials warned that high rates called for by Biggert-Waters could actually result in fewer people participating in the insurance program, which could result in greater costs during a disaster.