National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Flood insurance bill nears Senate vote

By Charlie Ban

NACo President Linda Langston and Second Vice President Sallie Clark joined four Louisiana parish presidents and several U.S. senators to encourage Senate passage of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (S. 1846), at a Capitol Hill news conference Jan. 7.

It is scheduled for a vote the week of Jan. 12.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) would delay, for four years, residential rate increases in the National Flood Insurance Program — a result of 2012’s Biggert-Waters Act — until the Federal Emergency Management Agency can complete an affordability study. Supporters point to incomplete flood maps and incorrect actuarial tables as contributing to crippling rate hikes that are due to kick in as a result of Biggert-Waters.

“There isn’t a state in the country isn’t going to be affected,” Menendez said. “It’s not (just) a coastal issue. We feel it’s only right that an affordability study be completed.”

Photo by Charlie Ban

NACo President Linda Langston (right) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) discuss urging passage of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act following a Capitol Hill news conference Jan. 7.

Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu agreed, though prefaced it with her concern for her home state.

“This is probably the most important issue to Louisiana right now, but this is a national issue,” she said.

Her opponent in the upcoming Senate race, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, has introduced a similar bill in the House (H.R. 3693), which delays premium increases until March 1, 2015.

“This affects every county along a river, any manufacturing community,” said Langston, whose Linn County was flooded by the Cedar River in 2008. “The law in place does its job, it gets people to think twice about where they want to build, but the numbers that went into developing the new insurance rates aren’t credible. That’s why we need an affordability study, to cut out the unanticipated problems.”

The Biggert-Waters Act was designed to make the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program solvent, after eight years of debt. The program provides the majority of flood insurance held by U.S. landowners.

Eight months ago, following revised flood plain mapping in Louisiana, Greater New Orleans (GNO), Inc. formed the Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance to organize opposition to the Biggert-Waters changes, which the group termed a mass of unintended consequences.

“Fixing flood insurance is both morally right and economically essential,” said Michael Hecht, GNO’s CEO. “Biggert-Waters could have devastated the economy across the U.S. The fact is that 55 percent  of America lives within 15 miles of the coast.”

The new flood maps don’t accurately assess flood risk because they omit flood mitigation efforts that were not put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers such as pumps.

“Getting these maps right and using the best science and technology available is critically important to getting the opportunity for homeowners to keep the most significant asset of their life together,” Menendez said. “If nothing changes, [homeowners] will find [their properties] virtually worthless as prospective buyers balk at onerous premiums.”

St. John the Baptist Parish, La. was flooded by Hurricane Isaac in August 2012, affecting approximately 6,000 homes.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said residents received startling news when they returned to their homes — major jumps in their premiums.

“To go through recovering and rebuilding, and on top of that, start to receive flood insurance bills that go from $300 to maybe $5,000, it just doesn’t work,” she said. “That leaves a lot of people not thinking they can afford to live in their homes, or even sell them.”

She extrapolated a wider-spread result of higher insurance premiums.

“That creates a ripple effect that’s detrimental to the community, to the tax base, to the school systems, or police department,” she said. “We do need to increase the rates for flood insurance, but what [is happening] is unacceptable, it will diminish our communities and the program will eventually dissolve. We understand the need for it to be sustainable, but we can’t do it with the mechanism they have in place.”