Flood insurance hopes turn to House

By ZACHARY FITZGERALD zfitzgerald@daily-review.com

St. Mary Parish officials say the passage of the Senate bill to delay flood insurance rate increases in the Biggert-Waters Act is a step in the right direction, and a similar bill needs to be passed through the House to avoid unaffordable flood insurance rates.
The Senate bill to delay flood insurance rate increases passed the Senate with a vote of 67-32 on Jan. 30, and the House will now have its turn at the bill.
St. Mary Parish President Paul Naquin said, “Hopefully, it will pass. We were very happy that it passed the Senate because we were kind of scared with the Senate that it didn’t have enough votes.”
Parish officials got the provisions they wanted in the Senate bill, Naquin said. Included in the bill is an effort to conduct an affordability study. Some projected residential flood insurance rates without any changes to the Biggert-Waters Act soared up to $28,000 for an annual premium, Naquin said.
St. Mary Parish Levee District Executive Director Tim Matte said the Senate bill was probably easier to pass as compared to the House. “I think the easier of the two bodies have approved the provisions so it’ll be a little more difficult to get it through the House,” Matte said. “However, when the budget bill passed earlier this year, it included a one-year delay so we have at least that working in our advantage.”
Naquin said, “I think we’re going to pretty well get what we asked for.” The grandfather provision was also included in the Senate bill saying that if someone sells a residence, the property that the residence is on will be grandfathered in to the existing flood insurance rates, Naquin said.
Another stipulation included was to not allow any rates to increase for four years, Naquin said. Therefore, FEMA will have time to come up with a plan to give credit for levees or other buffers that aid in flood protection, Naquin said.
St. Mary Parish is fortunate to have 130 miles of federal levees, and now FEMA plans to come back and give the parish credit toward flood protection on some of those levees, Naquin said.
Matte said the objective of the Senate bill is to ensure that if someone complied with the law in existence when the property was developed, an affordable rate would be attained over the life of the property, Matte said. “That particular change won’t come about unless there’s actually reform to the bill itself,” Matte said.
The passage of the Senate bill offers more time, and the levee district and drainage district will pursue levee improvement projects during that time, Matte said. The parish could have levees that could be approved for flood protection when the new FEMA maps go into effect to minimize the impact of flood insurance rate increases, Matte said.
The four-year delay is an attempt to facilitate an affordability study before the Biggert-Waters Act is implemented, Matte said. The affordability study would be “a review of the impact to the consumer of all of these things that have been proposed,” Matte said. “One of the things that those of us in coastal Louisiana are hoping that it demonstrates is that these changes are not affordable,” Matte said.
The “victims” of the potential high flood insurance rates are not wealthy people with beach houses, the way the objective of the Biggert-Waters Act is often portrayed, Matte said.
“It’s impacting middle class America, who happen to live and work in a coastal environment where coastal challenges are affecting their ability to meet the requirements of flood protection,” Matte said.
Matte cited examples of levees in Morgan City, which have protected the community for years, that were not able to be certified for flood protection, he said.
The intention of the Biggert-Waters Act was to make the National Flood Insurance Program more financially sound, Matte said.
Another challenge for the Morgan City area is that even if everyone is grandfathered in to existing flood insurance rates, new development would have to meet a higher standard for flood protection, Matte said.
In a news release, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, said, “Folks in Louisiana know all too well the necessity of flood insurance. But I’ve heard from countless families that if flood insurance spikes weren’t stopped, they’d lose their homes — their slice of the American Dream. Unsustainable rate increases are just out of the question for millions of homeowners.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, said in a news release, “I am proud that we were able to come together today to protect middle class families and help preserve the American Dream that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can build a prosperous future.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said in an email, “South Louisiana’s homeowners are facing overnight sticker shock as their flood insurance premiums have skyrocketed. For residents in parishes with high participation rates in the National Flood Insurance Program, the delay of the Biggert-Waters Act is critical. I am working on a real reform package that restores fiscal stability to the program and keeps policies affordable for homeowners. I’m pushing for legislation in the House that will address the realities homeowners across the country are facing with this dramatic rate increase of premiums. That’s why I’m asking for leadership in the House to consider legislation delaying these increases in premiums. Ignoring this critical issue will devastate the residents of the working coast of Louisiana in addition to coastal residents across the country. We must address this issue now.”

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