U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise hears from Slidell business leaders about flood insurance rate hikes

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and other panelists Friday gave Slidell area business leaders a grim assessment of what will happen to the economy if flood insurance rate hikes mandated by the Biggert-Waters Act aren’t stopped, from houses that can’t be sold because insurance costs are unaffordable to property taxes that dry up because of devaluation.

John Case, a local insurance agent and one of the panelists, outlined a couple of cases that show skyrocketing rates, one for a homeowner, the other for a business owner.

Then he asked audience members to close their eyes and imagine the year 2020. “There is no Chamber of Commerce, there is no Whitney Bank. The City Council is no longer a city council, it’s a town council,’’ he said.

Scalise assured the East St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce that congressional efforts to ward off the ill effects of National Flood Insurance Program reform are gaining ground.

Scalise said that the flood insurance program has long been assailed by bipartisan opposition, mainly from areas of the country that don’t think they need a flood protection plan.

The Biggert-Waters measure, which seeks to push the program away from subsidized to actuarial rates, has created what Scalise described as unintended consequences, in large part because of FEMA’s new flood maps, which he said are flawed.

The elimination of grandfathering in property owners who built their homes to comply with past flood maps is one of the key problems with the legislation, he said.

Now, however, a growing number of lawmakers realize that Biggert-Waters will mean problems for many parts of the country, he said, and as a result, a coalition is building.

Rep. Bill Cassidy’s amendment to an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security aims to solve the problem by withholding funds for FEMA to implement Biggert-Waters. That amendment, which would grandfather in certain property owners for an additional year, passed the House with strong bipartisan support, Scalise said, and now heads to the Senate.

While panelists stressed that Biggert-Waters poses problems on a national level, they spelled out the local risk of steep rate hikes, particularly in Slidell.

Panelist Sean Burkes, of the engineering firm JV Burkes & Associates, said 732 homes in St. Tammany Parish were affected by rate hikes on Jan. 1 because they are secondary homes. On Oct. 1, business properties built before the flood program was established and severe repetitive loss properties will begin to see their rates climb, which Burke said will affect 405 businesses and 300 homes.

Friday’s gathering was the second in St. Tammany Parish this week that addressed concerns with the flood insurance program. Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere put together what was billed as a workshop meeting that drew a sizable crowd Wednesday.
Residents listened to a rundown on the Biggert-Waters Act and also learned that Mandeville has hired Solutient Corp. to help residents apply for hazard mitigation grant funds to elevate their homes.

St. Tammany Parish’s share of that money is $7.2 million, but workshop participants were told that it’s not yet known what Mandeville’s share will be.