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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - Fire-Damaged Home Rebuilding Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the Fire-Damaged Home Rebuilding Act.

This legislation is simple. It allows families living in FEMA-designated flood plains to rebuild their home in the event it is destroyed by fire.

The bill allows communities to waive requirements that were meant to block reconstruction after floods, but have been applied to block reconstruction of homes after fires and other natural disasters as well.

I was first made aware of this issue by a constituent from Sacramento. Her home in the Natomas neighborhood burned down, and when she applied for a permit to rebuild it she was denied. The County informed her that FEMA floodplain regulations required her to elevate the home 20 feet above ground level because of existing deficiencies in the levee protecting her neighborhood.

Can you imagine what that would look like? Every house in the neighborhood at ground level, and one home towering 20 feet above the rest?

More importantly though, the cost would be exorbitant. And it would be imposed by the federal government on a family trying to get back on its feet after a personal tragedy.

When the home burned down, the family collected $71,000 from their insurance company. Contractors estimated the cost to restore the home to its original condition was $170,000--a significant burden, but one the family was willing to bear.

But when the family factored in the cost of elevating their home 20 feet, the cost skyrocketed. Contractors estimated the elevation project would cost an additional $200,000.

Just to restore their home to its previous size and condition, the family would owe $300,000 more than what they received from their insurance.

There is a fundamental issue of fairness at stake.

This family tragically lost their home and many of their personal belongings. But instead of helping the family during this difficult time, the federal government is instead blocking them from rebuilding. Why? Because the federal government has failed to maintain adequate flood protection.
It just doesn't seem fair.

The Fire-Damaged Home Rebuilding Act addresses this issue by allowing local communities to grant variances to FEMA flood plain regulations without jeopardizing their participation in the program.

The legislation allows waivers to be granted only if all of the following conditions are met.

Communities must already have taken steps to repair damaged levees, such as seeking Federal authorization of a levee project, and there must be previously existing plans to obtain the requisite 100-year flood protection in the near future.

The destroyed house must be within a deep floodplain where it would be too expensive and unsightly to elevate the home.

The new home must be built within the footprint of the destroyed structure.

The homeowner cannot qualify for new insurance discounts; and the property has never been associated with a claim to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Representative Doris Matsui and I worked with FEMA to ensure that these limitations will only allow individual to rebuild very limited circumstances.

I strongly oppose new development in the flood plain. It is irresponsible to permit new homes or businesses in an area where you know that flooding is likely.

But rebuilding a single existing home after a tragic fire is different than building a new tract of homes. If an entire neighborhood is burned down, for instance, it should be rebuilt at a safe level. A single home is also different than building new schools or new shopping malls, which would be prohibited under the bill.

But just to be sure that local governments don't abuse this power, the number of waivers they can approve is capped at ten per year. We need to make sure that the waiver is used judiciously.

The FEMA regulations were put in place to block individual homeowners from voluntarily renovating and improving their homes. It was also designed to block homeowners from rebuilding after a flood. By doing so, the federal government limits its liability for future flood insurance claims.

I agree with the goals of those FEMA regulations. But fire-damaged homes clearly do not fit in either category. So we need to adjust the law to eliminate an unfortunate and unintended consequence of an otherwise good policy.

City and County governments must be empowered to make case by case judgments about whether it makes sense to elevate damaged structures by 10, 15, or 20 feet when the rest of the neighborhood remains at ground level.

That is exactly what the Fire-Damaged Home Reconstruction Act does. It provides limited authority to local governments, which will allow them to do what makes sense for their communities.

This is a commonsense piece of legislation, and I hope my colleagues will work to quickly adopt the bill.

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