Video: La. leaders oppose high flood insurance rates, show FEMA levees

As far as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance calculations are concerned, miles of levees protecting many of Louisiana’s coastal parishes simply don’t exist.

So on Thursday, members of the state’s congressional delegation took David Miller, the head of that program, to see those flood protection features for himself.

The daylong helicopter and bus tour, followed by a roundtable at GNO, Inc. with presidents of coastal parishes, was aimed at promoting the protection offered by locally built levees as FEMA begins a pilot program to take those features into account in its rates. And it provided officials with an opportunity to lobby for delays in a new law that they warned would cause catastrophic rate hikes for residents of coastal parishes.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, who organized the event, told Miller the delegation was demanding significant action to prevent flood insurance costs from becoming prohibitive in Louisiana.

“We will under no circumstances accept an ordinary fix because this is not an ordinary situation,” Landrieu, D-La., said. “We need an extraordinary fix.”

During the tour, Miller, FEMA’s associate administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, said the event impressed upon him the uniqueness of coastal Louisiana and the specific flood protection issues it faces. He suggested the new pilot program looking at locally built levees would help ease the impact of the new law, known as Biggert-Waters, which isn’t expected to begin rolling out until fall 2014.

Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, noted that his agency and others have been building their own levees for decades, and those massive earthen walls, some 17 feet high, have prevented flooding during hurricanes in recent years.

His parish and others would benefit from a pilot program that would credit communities for so-called “non-accredited” flood protection features such as levees that do not meet federal standards. FEMA does not take those features into account when it determines the risk of flooding for an area.

That prompted some officials to joke that they needed to bring Miller to the levees, and even close a floodgate in Lafourche while he and other officials stood on top of it, to prove that they were real.

“We checked David’s shoes and he’s got dirt from some of those levees that up until now FEMA has said didn’t exist,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said.

The nationwide program to take the effects of those features into account is now underway, and the first wave of communities being evaluated includes St. Tammany, St. Charles, Plaquemines, Terrebone and Lafourche parishes.

But the impact of those changes will be offset by the Biggert-Waters Act, a law that now requires FEMA to drop many of the subsidies that have historically been involved in its flood insurance program and make sure it is able to sustain itself. That could lead to massive rate increases for some properties.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate would be called before a committee next month to answer three questions: Will he delay the implementation of Biggert-Waters? Will he delay the release of new flood maps until the locally built levees can be taken into account? And will he work with Congress to sort out the issues in the legislation?

Unaffordable flood insurance rates could force many homeowners now covered by the program to go without coverage, leaving them vulnerable and undermining the financing of the system, Vitter said.

“You’re never going to make the National Flood Insurance Program sustainable if you have people leaving the system,” he said.

Southern Louisiana is a “working coast,” unlike many of the beachfront communities that are covered by the flood insurance program, Landrieu said.

While a property owner with a weekend getaway might be able to afford a steep increase in rates — or simply forgo the luxury of a sandy retreat — working-class families in the state’s hurricane-prone areas don’t have that option, she said.

And, with massive amounts of the country’s oil and gas infrastructure dotting the coast to take advantage of offshore energy exploration, those communities need to exist, Landrieu said. Throughout the trip, she also noted federal projects aimed at keeping the Mississippi River navigable have been significant contributors to coastal erosion. That, combined with damage done to wetlands by oil and gas companies, has removed some of the buffer that mitigates the damage of hurricanes.

“We didn’t do it for us; we did it for the country, and now we’re drowning like rats,” Landrieu said.

The changes called for by the delegation could represent part of a larger effort, Landrieu suggested. Noting the unique circumstances on the Louisiana coast, the senator said a “one size fits all approach” to flood insurance and corps projects was not the way to go.

“What I’m asking is for the federal government to recognize that there are differences between states,” she said.