FEMA reviews nonaccredited levees

Three Oak Harbor subdivision neighborhoods in Slidell are ringed by a levee more than a dozen feet high, tall enough so that when Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge swamped the unprotected areas of the subdivision and much of the city, those waterfront communities remained dry.

But when it comes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s calculations for flood insurance rates, those earthen embankments might as well not exist.

FEMA traditionally has completely ignored such projects when determining how much to charge homeowners, assuming that levees that haven’t been through a rigorous evaluation process that is needed to become accredited will not hold up.

That could change with a new pilot program announced by FEMA last week that will give property owners some credit for so-called nonaccredited levees, potentially shifting some areas into new flood risk categories and lowering insurance rates. Those levees, largely built by local agencies, often do not have the proper certifications and reviews that are part of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects.

For many in parishes not covered by the $14 billion post-Katrina flood protection system being designed and built by the corps — which surrounds Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes — the new program is long overdue.

“The levees worked, we know they worked,” said St. Tammany Parish Council Chairman Jerry Binder, whose district includes Oak Harbor. “That’s the problem with FEMA; they see it and say, ‘Nah, this couldn’t possibly happen.’ But it did.”

St. Tammany is one of five Louisiana parishes that will participate in the pilot program, along with St. Charles, Plaquemines, Terrebonne and Lafourche. Another 20 communities around the country also will be evaluated.

The program could have significant effects in the Slidell area, where the parish and city have installed their own 16-foot-high levees to protect traditionally flood-prone areas. Those projects include installing levees near U.S. 11, raising the ones on the Schneider Canal as well as raising the roadway itself, Binder said.

“I think any area that has any levees of any significance should absolutely get much lower rates,” he said.

Louisiana officials have been pushing for that kind of recognition and FEMA acknowledged that its existing procedures do not properly credit levees that do not meet its standards.

“FEMA recognizes that levee systems that do not fully meet the requirements for accreditation may still provide a measure of flood risk reduction; for that reason, the agency has developed a new approach and procedures for providing a more refined depiction of flood risks,” according to a news release from the agency.

Under the pilot program, levees will be broken down into sections for evaluation. Each of those “reaches” will be studied so officials can determine how much protection the levees offer and what deficiencies exist.

Once the pilot program is completed, FEMA plans to expand that methodology to other areas.

Though the program itself is expected to have a more modest impact on south shore communities now protected by the federal, accredited levees, Sen. David Vitter blasted FEMA in a letter Friday for releasing flood maps for Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard before nonaccredited levees were taken into account.

In his letter, Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, cited a meeting with parish presidents and David Miller, FEMA’s associate administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration. The senator said that during the meeting, he had received commitments that no new flood maps would be issued until the process was completed.

“He committed to this because doing otherwise would lead to publishing incomplete maps with inaccurate information, leading to misleading estimates about future flood insurance rates and possibly improper rates,” Vitter wrote.

The new program and maps also come as officials in Louisiana and elsewhere are calling for a rollback of the Biggert-Waters Act, which could lead to massive increases in flood insurance premiums for some property owners, St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr. said in Vitter’s news release.

“This problem is of national concern as FEMA continues to release flawed flood maps and outrageous insurance premiums to neighborhoods throughout America,” St. Pierre said.

In St. Tammany, Binder said, all that was needed to show locally built levees should be taken into account for flood insurance would be a look back at their performance. While the protected areas of Oak Harbor remained safe during the 2005 hurricane, the federally built levees on the south shore failed, flooding the city, he noted.

“Who’s got the better track record?” Binder asked.