By Jordan Blum
U.S. Sen. David Vitter sent a letter to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday urging him to rescind preliminary flood maps for the National Flood Insurance Program that were issued this month for Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.
Many southern Louisiana residents are facing flood insurance rate hikes of 20 percent or more, in some cases, because of legislation approved by Congress last year to make the National Flood Insurance Program more financially self-sustaining. But FEMA also has been criticized for not factoring in a lot of flood protection measures into its mapping and escalating the problems for homeowners and businesses.
Vitter, R-La., contended that FEMA officials said they would not release any more preliminary flood maps until the agency finalized a process of accounting for more flood protection features. Much, but not all, of the three parishes though are protected by the post-Hurricane Katrina levee system that was built and is counted by FEMA maps.
"Earlier this year, FEMA caused panic in many parishes in south Louisiana by predicting future flood insurance rates based on incomplete and inaccurate maps, and now they are repeating that same irresponsible mistake with the release of these maps," Vitter stated. "This is a direct and total violation of FEMA's commitment to me at our meeting in May. It puts communities affected under the gun, and the result could be that they will have to bear the cost of FEMA's mistakes for years to come."
FEMA oversees the NFIP.
FEMA is still in the process of finalizing its flood mapping, so details are still up in the air as the new law moves toward implementation starting as soon as October.
Nearly 500,000 people in Louisiana participate in the NFIP. The program has been in financial distress with a loss of more than $20 billion, largely due to payments made after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The fear is that proposed flood maps will cost Louisiana residents and business owners a lot more in the congressional effort to make the flood insurance program more self-sustainable.
The program also starts phasing out "grandfathered" rates next year. The term pertains to the subsidized rates on properties that were built before the NFIP started in 1968.
Last month, the U.S. House passed an amendment to delay the impact on grandfathered properties for one year that was sponsored by U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. Cassidy also criticized the Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard preliminary mapping on Wednesday.
A similar legislative effort - a longer, three-year delay - in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Vitter failed when it was blocked by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
But Landrieu chairs the U.S. Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee and she plans to insert the House amendment and its one-year delay into the Homeland Security appropriations bill that will begin being marked up in committee as soon as later this month.
Landrieu on Wednesday gave FEMA credit for beginning to implement new guidelines in its mapping so the agency will start factoring in existing flood protection efforts that are not counted in FEMA maps that only credit 100-year flood protection systems.
"It has taken too long for FEMA to acknowledge what we have known all along: Local levees do provide protection, and our communities deserve credit for the investments they have made in their water infrastructure," Landrieu stated. "The release of these guidelines is another important step in our ongoing effort to improve our national understanding of living along the coast. Previous mapping efforts have failed to understand the unique topography and conditions of coastal Louisiana, and I am committed to ensuring our communities get the credit they deserve for the levees they have built."
Landrieu announced last month that FEMA Associate Administrator David Miller, who oversees the NFIP, will participate this summer in a tour of Louisiana communities affected by NFIP rate increases.