Bill to block higher flood-insurance premiums could be law by end of year, sponsor says

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker --  Congresswoman Maxine Waters visited with area leaders like Jefferson Parish President John Young as well as residents of Plaquemines parish in Braithwaite talking impending flood insurance rate hikes Friday, November 8, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Congresswoman Maxine Waters visited with area leaders like Jefferson Parish President John Young as well as residents of Plaquemines parish in Braithwaite talking impending flood insurance rate hikes Friday, November 8, 2013.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters said Friday that a congressional bill that would delay huge increases in the cost of homeowners’ government-backed flood insurance policies by about four years should become law by the end of the year.

The California Democrat, who led a bipartisan group of 50 House members and 15 senators who filed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act last month, spent the day in Plaquemines Parish meeting with local leaders and homeowners to tell them she is doing all she can to fix a law she co-sponsored two years ago.

That law was intended to make the National Flood Insurance Program more financially self-sustainable, but it did so by increasing premiums far more than Waters and other lawmakers expected. A $400 annual premium, for example, could jump to $4,000 and even as high as $15,000, according to some worst-case-scenarios.

“I’m back here because my name is on this legislation,” Waters said of the initial bill, called the Biggert-Waters Act. “I thought I have a responsibility to help make this right.”

The new bill, which has not yet begun moving through the legislative process, would delay many of the premium insurance hikes until two years after the Federal Emergency Management Agency completes an affordability study on the rate increases. The study is not expected to be finished for another year or more.

The legislation focuses on delaying the insurance hikes for primary residences — excluding properties that have suffered repeated flooding — that have “grandfathered” lower premiums. It also would delay a property sale “trigger” so that homes and businesses sold after July 6, 2012, do not automatically see dramatic insurance increases.

It is not clear exactly how many owners would stand to benefit from the legislation.

The bill also would create an advocate position within FEMA to take calls from homeowners.

Waters told state and parish officials Friday she will continue to work with Louisiana’s congressional delegation on legislation that would protect the owners of small businesses and second homes, which would still be subject to the rate hikes even if the current bill passes.

“You’ve said it, I’ve heard it, and I’ve got to set about the business of getting it done,” she said.

Jefferson Parish President John Young, who was among the South Louisiana officials who gathered at the Rev. Percy Murphy Griffin Community Center in Davant, said he was thrilled to find out the delay in higher premiums could kick in within a couple of months.

While the proposed bill would still leave the long-term cost of flood insurance up in the air for the next few years, it is the best option available right now because the rate hikes it will prevent are unacceptably large, officials said.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said the bill, which would also give credit for locally funded flood protection projects under construction, will help Louisiana parishes hold FEMA accountable as it creates new flood maps.

Like Young, Nungesser praised Waters for her efforts.

“She really stepped up and owned the problems in that bill,” he said.

Waters recalled coming to New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina to help put people on buses headed for shelters outside the city, and being in Louis Armstrong International Airport among the sick and homeless. She later visited Plaquemines after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So when Plaquemines Parish Councilman Percy V. Griffin came to her office in March without an appointment to tell her what the impending rate hikes were going to do to homeowners in Plaquemines and other areas along the Gulf, Waters said, there was no question what she had to do.

She said the bipartisan coalition behind the proposed Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which formed while the rest of Congress was embroiled in the standoff over the government shutdown, is a testament to the importance of the issue not just in Louisiana but across the country.

“When you have Maxine Waters and David Vitter working on the same legislation, you know it’s a miracle,” she said, joking.

Waters is known as one of the House’s most liberal Democrats, while Vitter is one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans.