BEAM: 28 Grand…For Flood Insurance?

What would you do if you lived along the Louisiana coast and were told your federal flood insurance premium was going from $400 to more than $28,000 a year? Ask Robert Taylor, a homeowner in Des Allemands, who faces that difficult situation.

“That’s insane,” he said, according to an Associated Press report. “This community has been here since 1923 and has never, ever flooded. Ever.”

Des Allemands is in St. Charles Parish, and is within 15 miles of New Orleans. It has a current population estimated to be 3,892. The average home value in the town is $111,100, and the average household income is $48,438.

The National Flood Insurance Program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and it has required $24 billion in bailouts since it was created in 1968. Many members of Congress believe it’s time for those who live along the coast to start paying higher flood insurance premiums. The AP said that could ultimately force people from their homes, reduce real estate values and change the lifestyles of many coastal residents.

Taylor said that’s unfair because FEMA’s new flood maps aren’t accurate. The maps say his home is 6 or 7 feet below flood stage. But Taylor said the maps don’t consider that a levee built 80 years ago by local government has protected his community through hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac.

The flood insurance program has 5.5 million policyholders — nearly 500,000 of them in Louisiana. FEMA estimates that 20 percent of the 5.5 million (1.1 million) receive insurance subsidies designed to lower premiums. Business owners, those who own second homes and people with frequently flooded properties (250,000) will face immediate rate increases. Nearly 600,000 more who live in hazardous areas will keep their subsidies until they sell their homes or experience repeated flood losses.

Late next year, FEMA plans to quit grandfathering lower rates for people whose homes were built to older flood codes.

Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation are united in their efforts to do as much as they can to slow down these drastic changes. And the fact that two of them will be opponents in next year’s U.S. Senate race has accelerated their efforts. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu will be seeking her fourth six-year term. U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has announced he will be one of her opponents.

Cassidy was successful last month in getting the House to delay flood insurance rate hikes for a year on properties that were grandfathered in years ago. He had help from U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. The amendment was approved 281 to

146. Richmond and others helped win over 187 Democratic votes.

Meanwhile, Landrieu, with help from U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tried in the Senate to delay the flood rate hikes for three years, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Landrieu admitted the year’s delay by the House was a positive step and said she would build on that effort. She and Vitter have filed bills seeking longer delays.

“We do believe that we can fix, amend or modify to mitigate against some of these extraordinary increases in a smarter, more compassionate way, and we just need time to figure that out,” Landrieu said.

FEMA is also trying to rethink some of its flood insurance policies. David Miller, who is in charge of the program, admits the agency has ignored non-federal levees and other local efforts in determining flood risk, but is rethinking that policy. That is exactly what Taylor from Des Allemands was talking about when he said a locally built levee kept his community free of flooding since it was founded in 1923.

Miller said, “We’ve put all mapping of levees on hold until the new policy goes into effect” in a few weeks.

None of these efforts get much sympathy from members of Congress who think those who live along the coast should pay higher premiums for their flood insurance protection. However consider how that $28,000 annual premium affects Taylor in Des Allemands.

“The worst part is my home was worth $230,000 this Jan. 1,” Taylor said. “As of right now, my tax assessor tells me because of this flood insurance issue my home is worth $35,000, basically the lot.”

The easy solution, of course, would be for people to move away from low-lying areas. However, is that fair for those whose families have lived on the coast for centuries?

Landrieu said, “What I’m talking about are the fishermen, the dock workers, the middle-class families that have lived on this coast and river for 300 years. And we’re literally pricing them out from a piece of geography that President Jefferson leveraged the entire federal Treasury to buy. On the heels of this recession, it’s just terribly cruel and harsh. And on the heels of the BP oil spill. And on the heels of Katrina and Rita, how much more can we take?”

Coastal residents could and should pay more for continued protection from floods, but shouldn’t the premiums be more affordable? Congress has had many opportunities since 1968 to fix the flood insurance problem before it got so deep in the red, but it didn’t. Now, it wants to make up for its failures in one fell swoop. That’s wrong.

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