Given the often-fractious differences among the members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, it's rare — and worth noting — when they agree on an issue of importance to all Louisianans. Since 2012, Louisiana pols from both parties have railed against the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a measure that requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to make fundamental changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The stated aim of Biggert-Waters is "to reflect true flood risk, make the program more financially stable, and change how Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) updates impact policyholders." In plain English, this means skyrocketing flood insurance premiums for millions of property owners across the country, especially those who live and work in south Louisiana.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., one of the authors of the act, agrees with Louisiana's U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, as well as Louisiana's congressmen, that parts of her namesake law should be delayed or dismantled. Last year Waters warned that some ratepayers would be faced with bills that are "10, 100, and in some cases, more than 1,000 times higher than their current subsidized rates. These rates, which are upwards of $28,000 per year, are unaffordable and could have devastating impacts on these homeowners and their communities if they are implemented."
This is not just rhetoric. Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., wrote an editorial for Insurance Journal last week citing the example of a Belle Chasse home that has never flooded (and, in fact, was built 2 feet above FEMA flood specifications). Hecht said the home's annual premium under Biggert-Waters would go from $633 to $17,723 — which not only would make it unaffordable for the current homeowner but also render it unmarketable.
Fortunately, after nearly two years of effort by Landrieu, Vitter and senators from other hurricane-battered states, more than two-thirds of the U.S. Senate agrees that Biggert-Waters went too far. By a vote of 67-32 last week, the Senate adopted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (HFIA). The act would delay flood insurance rate hikes for about four years — until FEMA completes an affordability study (originally mandated by Biggert-Waters but never completed) and guarantees that its new flood maps are accurate. The bill also would "grandfather" current rates for homeowners who find themselves placed into a flood zone for the first time or moved into a higher-risk flood zone because of remapping, and it would establish a Flood Insurance Rate Map Advocate within FEMA. The advocate would answer policyholder questions and assist property owners through the map appeals process. This has huge implications for south Louisiana.
Landrieu and Vitter, who rarely agree, both pushed hard for the Senate bill, which passed with significant bipartisan support — though 31 of the 32 Senate votes against the measure came from Republicans. Louisiana House members likewise are lobbying their colleagues to pass a companion bill, but that measure faces a much tougher fight in the Republican-controlled House. Speaker John Boehner, for example, opposes the rate relief bill. The White House has expressed concerns as well, but a spokesman said President Barack Obama would not veto the measure if it passes.
Opponents of flood insurance rate relief argue that the NFIP already has a $24 billion cumulative deficit. They say delaying rate hikes would make the deficit worse. Most of the congressional opponents represent states that are not flood prone — so far. Interestingly, many of those same opponents hail from inland states that are home to farmers who get billions in yearly federal subsidies, which are paid by the same taxpayers who help subsidize NFIP. In fact, the House passed a trillion dollar Farm Bill last week that includes more than $27 billion in "crop insurance" subsidies — which Boehner supported.
Landrieu and Vitter urged the House to vote on the companion measure soon. "Our work is not done yet," Landrieu said. "With more than 180 bipartisan House members backing a similar bill, I urge the House to quickly bring it to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Our people — and our economy — cannot wait any longer."
"Without a change, flood insurance is simply going to be unaffordable for middle-class families," Vitter has said. "Homeowners will literally have to turn in their keys and in some cases walk away from their homes. ... But this is not just a Louisiana issue — it's going to affect folks across the country."
We agree, and so does most of the U.S. Senate. Now it's time for the House to act.